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Host Jeff Probst On the 'Survivor' Survivors and 15 Years of Surviving
November 17, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

The small room at a Beverly Hills hotel was packed with reporters from countries as far flung as Malaysia, Russia, Australia, Israel, Brazil, Turkey, France, Colombia, Sweden and the UK, but no one needed an introduction to Jeff Probst — or any pointers on what Survivor is, or how it came to be a weekly fixture on U.S. television.

Survivor is arguably the most recognizable, high-profile reality-competition program on U.S. TV — nearly 500 episodes, spread over 15 TV seasons and counting — and yet it’s often taken for granted. It’s easy to forget the effect Survivor once had on the culture.

Certainly Probst could not have imagined that when he said, “The tribe has spoken” on TV for the first time on May 31, 2000,  he would one day become recognized on the street everywhere from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Sydney, Australia.

In person, Probst has an easygoing charm and a disarming willingness to poke fun at himself, even as he admits his ego is second to none.

Probst hit a wall, physically and emotionally, more than once during his 15 years as Survivor's host, most notably on Survivor: Gabon in 2008, when he considered walking away for good once his contract expired.

Gabon, in equatorial Africa along the Atlantic Ocean, has vast stretches of pristine rain forest and untrammeled beach. Loango National Park, which National Geographic explorer and naturalist Michael Fay once described as “Africa’s Last Eden,” is famed for its rare apes and ocean-swimming hippos. Survivor: Gabon was an arduous shoot, however, taxing on crew and contestants alike, and Probst was starting to wonder if it was all worth it.

He’s curious about human nature, though. That curiosity pulled him back, and has kept pulling him back. The more confident he becomes in his own ability to read human nature, the more he realizes what he doesn’t know. He’s wrong more often than he’s right, he’ll admit, and he believes that may be why Survivor has endured as long as it has.

After all, if Probst can’t guess what will happen in any given situation, the audience is unlikely to guess, either. And that uncertainty from one season to the next keeps them engaged.

It didn’t always look as if Survivor would last as long as it has. After several years of declining ratings — only natural for a long-running series —  Survivor's numbers evened out after Gabon and have stayed level ever since.

That’s unusual for prime-time TV, and almost unheard of in reality TV, where audiences tend to latch onto a hip new concept in droves, only to grow quickly bored. Right now, against the odds, Survivor is  the closest thing U.S. TV has to a sure thing, ratings-wise.

That might be the only thing about Survivor other than its hardwired story format of challenges followed by group votes, that is a certainty.

Survivor’s global appeal is harder to explain. Its concept was loosely based on a 1997 Swedish reality series, Expedition Robinson, which featured a survival situation and group votes. Survivor’s contestants are chosen for the very thing that makes them typically American, however: a clear sense of self-worth; a generally positive outlook on life; a tendency toward outspokenness in social situations; a willingness to work together as a group in a common cause — provided it doesn’t infringe on their individual rights — and an unswerving belief in American exceptionalism, especially as it applies to themselves. (right, Probst hands off the Immunity Idol during this season's Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.)

Probst argues that Survivor’s social situation — how we react when we’re cold, wet and hungry, when the comforts of home are wrenched away and we’re under relentless, round-the-clock physical and emotional pressure — reveal universal truths about ourselves as human beings that are translatable to any culture.

Regardless of the reasons, Survivor is a worldwide phenomenon. According to published media reports, last year’s Survivor: Cagayan was seen in 156 countries.

The world truly has become a global village, if Survivor is anything to go by.


[Jeff Probst, at a press session hosted by CBS International Studios for foreign-based media. Survivor is seen in more than 150 countries around the world.]

Probst on what he’s learned about himself through 'Survivor':

“I continue to learn about my own nature. I guess the thing, the really simple thing, is that I don’t think you can change your nature. You can go to therapy and become more aware of who you are. You can read books that help you examine yourself. But if, in your nature, you’re a leader, it’s only a matter of time before you stand up and say, ‘I know how to do this and I want to lead.’ And on a game like Survivor where you’ve stripped everybody of every kind of comfort you can think of — your friends, your news source, your favorite food, your pillow, your blanket, everything — your nature, who you really are, seems to come out even faster. Because you just can’t hide it. You get so debilitated.

“I had a really big life lesson, doing the show. A bunch of friends came to visit me in the Philippines. We left a challenge after filming, and were driving home in a van. For some reason we decided to play ‘When will you be voted out’ if we were on the show. It went around the horn, and it got to me. I was thinking in my head: ‘They are going to say that I’ll go pretty deep, maybe not win but deep. I know the show, and I’m good with words.’ This is what my ego was telling me. And my closest friend said, ‘Probst, you’d be out so fast.’ I was shocked. But I knew – I know from Survivor — that when a group of people tell you what they think of you, they’re right. Their perception is accurate for them.

“My friends said, ‘Your mouth, you’re too lippy. You think it’s funny but other people find it annoying, and they would vote you out.’ The thing that I thought was my asset — words, being verbal — is not nearly as charming as I think it is. They said, ‘You would piss somebody off pretty quick, and they’d vote you out.’ . . . I now know that to be true. And as I know it to be true, I’m thinking to myself that I’ve probably said three annoying things in this room already.”

Probst on hitting the wall on 'Survivor' — literally:

“The most challenging year was when we shot Tocantins, Brazil and then we shot in Gabon, Africa. We’d done this a long time at that point. Both of them were completely remote locations, meaning, there is nothing. There’s not a single light bulb. There’s not a little store you go to. It’s a big field or, in the case of Brazil, a big sand dune. And you live in these little white modular houses that we bring out. One of them is no bigger than a quarter of this room. It has an air-conditioning unit and a toilet, and you start to lose your mind. I watched crew members start to lose their minds because there’s nowhere to go and no one to talk to. That was a major turning point for our show. At the end of that season – and I was one of the big voices saying, ‘We’re never doing that again, ever.’ Gabon is an awesome place, but I’d rather shoot in the same (reliable) place over and over than go somewhere that puts our crew through that kind of mental stress. It’s probably hard to understand, but it’s real. You just start to lose your mind.

”Honestly, I’ve had a big rebirth in the last several years. And I feel like it’s coincided with an audience rebirth. I don’t know what it is. I know that we’ve changed some things about how we make our show. I think our show has been as good as it’s ever been the last couple of years. I often get approached by families – usually it’s a mom and dad and two kids. The kids are eight, nine, 10, that age range. It’s the kids that get me. This new batch of kids are watching the show; they’ve seen all of the seasons, even though they’re only 10. Survivor has been on 15 years. Something’s happening. It might have started with  Blood vs. Water. It might be cyclical. There’s now a new group whose parents grew up watching Survivor, and now their kids are old enough to watch. Now it’s family viewing.

“To speak to how much I’m impacted by that, I’m now one of the executive producers on the show. I’m constantly talking to the guys on location about what our show is. I say to them over and over and over: Imagine a mom and a dad. Maybe they both work; maybe mom’s with the kids; maybe dad’s working. The kids are running around; they just finished their homework so they can watch Survivor. They are eating at the table; the dog’s barking. This is the show they’re choosing to watch. Is this what we want them to see?

“And it impacts our challenges, how colorful they are, how many times they get muddy — all those things to make the experience so that it’s as much a sensory thing as anything else. We want to make you feel like you were there, that you got to have this adventure, too.”

On casting a wide net:

“I’m always amazed at how much time we spend on casting. It’s months and months. We have a full team working almost year-round on Survivor. We’re continually reevaluating our system. There is never an, ‘Okay, we’ve got it.’ This is what we do. Every year it feels like we’re starting over. Once again, even now, we’re looking for people for [TV] seasons 31 and 32. We’re once again short on women. We can find lippy loud-mouth weird guys all day every day, but finding a woman who wants to do it, who wants to come out there and has the personality to do it, is tough. So, here we are 30 seasons [15 TV seasons] later and sometimes I feel like we still don’t quite know how to do it yet. We still end up with people on the show who disappoint us. Casting really is your currency on a show like Survivor and the fun part is, there’s no way to guarantee it. It’s a crapshoot. You sit around, go through psych tests, medical tests, all kinds of people batter you with questions. We wake you up in the middle of the night then we tell you you’re not in, then we bring you back and say maybe you are. We’re just trying to get under and see who you really are. And at the end of the day, we take a bunch of cards and we throw them down with everybody’s picture and we say, all right let’s present this, this and this, and then we give it to [CBS president and CEO] Leslie Moonves, and he says ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” (Keith Nale, above, from this season's Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.)

On Twitter and applicants’ audition videos:

“Through social media, especially Twitter, I get a lot of people sending me their audition videos. I solicit them and I watch. I go on at night, and I go to my Twitter account. I’ll start clicking through and watch them. I usually respond. I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you’re going to get on,’ or, ‘I don’t think you’re ready,’ or, ‘It’s not interesting enough,’ or whatever. And then occasionally I’ll go, ‘Wow, you seem like you would be good. I’m going to pass you on to casting.’ I love that honest back-and-forth, because it’s the same relationship I feel we’ve had — that I especially have had — with Survivor fans from day one.

“When I thought seasons sucked, I’ve said so. When I thought players were annoying [and] shouldn’t be invited back, I’ve said so. I’ve also lauded the people that I loved. I think Boston Rob [Rob Mariano] and Parvati [Shallow] are awesome, and I hope they come back. I just speak my truth, with the idea being that, if this lasts long enough, you’ll learn to trust that I’m not BS-ing you. I’m telling you. I’m telling you that (this season) is going to be fantastic because we’ve done it and I know it’s going to be great, so I feel good about saying that.

“So, when people ask me what it takes to make a good survivor (contestant), it’s impossible to define. I remember, around season five or six, we had back-to-back interviews with people. One woman came in and told this tragic story of losing her husband in a car accident, and how it impacted her life. And we were all bored. Then the next guy came in and was telling us about how he was eating some potato chips downstairs and looking at these chips, and we were on the floor laughing. It doesn’t make any sense. One guy is talking about potato chips, the other person is talking about the death of her husband — and which person got on the show? The potato chip guy.

“I try to tell that to people because they’ll send in an audition tape, and it will be this amazing piece of filmmaking. They’ve got cuts and they’ve got these great shots and they’ve got splashy graphics — but you don’t know who they are. And then the people who end up in the show are sitting in front of their kitchen counter. going, ‘Look, I’m a father of three. I’m a fireman. Let me tell you why I’d kick ass on Survivor. And that can be really compelling. I’m interested.”

Location, location, location:

“Look, I don’t think Survivor is going to be going to the Middle East anytime soon. It’s a good question, though. It’s all about the beach. I don’t know why the beach, the blue water, the dense green jungle and the rain and lightning are all so important. But I do know that when we shoot on those locations, I feel more at home. I feel like we’ve got it all. The water is important. I see the underwater gear, all our boats, and I think to myself: ‘Oh, yeah, this is Survivor. I see our guys get get the image of people diving in the water and catching the fish with the spear. (Probst, left, with this season's cast of Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.)

“Sometimes, due to necessity, we have to go inland. I do feel something is missing, though, when we do that. In Nicaragua, we couldn’t get in the water; it was just too rough. The tides, the currents, it was too rough for us to get in there. It’s a sacrifice.

“When we’re faced with that situation, we try to say, ‘Okay, let’s make some big ballsy obstacle courses and get the people bloody and muddy and dirty.’ But all of us would rather have Palau every year, the Great Barrier Reef.

“You do have to mix it up, though, and you have to continue to try new things. Sometimes you guess right, and sometimes you guess wrong. What I love about Survivor’s relationship with the audience, I fully believe, is that we have an implied agreement with every true Survivor fan, and that is that we will try our absolute best to deliver a kickass adventure. I know that if we miss it one season, you’ll come back and give us one more chance. And that’s what keeps us going.

“We have had so many people be on the show. I’ve been on 15 years obviously, but we also have guys who have been on this show 12 years who have families they can’t visit. They’re working out there all day on the same show because of the pride they have in that finished episode, where they built that huge prop and, man, look at that baby. And it turned into a reality moment, and this is a great show, and that’s what keeps us going.”

Probst on growing old, finding wisdom and learning not to whine:

“There are things unfortunately in life that you can’t control, like age. If you’re 65 on Survivor you’re like a dinosaur. As I get closer to 65, it’s frustrating but it’s true. They look at people over 40 and go, ‘Oh, the old guy?’ Yes, the old guy, the 41-year-old, yeah, him.

“A lot times, though, the first person voted out is because of their personality. It’s not so much what their personality is; it’s that they’re unaware what their personality is. It’ s one thing if somebody comes in and says, ‘Listen, I whine a lot. I know I do and I’m going to try not to whine, so please just don’t be mad at me if I whine because I’m a whiner.’ Then, I’m going, ‘Okay she knows she’s a whiner. She’s telling me.’ But if it’s the person who comes in and whines for an hour about how great they are in the outdoors, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘No, this doesn’t make sense. You don’t even get that you’re just a whiner.’ The first person you want to get rid of is the woman or the guy who keeps complaining over there.

“That’s why I said a moment ago that the biggest life lesson I’ve had in the last couple of years is remembering that you need to worry about what you’re like. Stop judging what everybody else’s faults are. Start focusing on what your faults are. Because that’s what’s going to hold you back in your own life, Mr. Probst.”

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Fred Haupt
Jeff Probst
Please name your top 10 Survivor best players of all time,
with 1 being your best player,2 your second best player
3 your third best player and so on
If anyone should know who the best ever players are
it should be you
PS best in terms of durability, toughness(both mental and physical)
strategy(social and gamesmanship)and passion for the game.
I really liked Kelley Wentworth from season 31 and the player who
for me displayed the most passion for the game has to be John Cochran

very interested to hear your top 10

Jan 4, 2019   |  Reply
Fred Haupt
to jeff probst and all directors of survivor ; i am a survivorholic (i'll leave it there)here in south africa we have only just finished season 29and i have a grave concern for the integrity of the game going forward . when rob moriano won in season 22 the last speaker i.s.o. adddressing the contestants addressed the jury and thereby influenced their final decision and in my mind the integrity of rob's victory or at the very least the margin by which he won . in season 29 spencer did the same thing which is wrong and unfair i definitely believe that tony would not have won by so great a margin if it wasn't for spencer- if he would have won at all . i respectfully wish to ask that it be made mandatory that at final tribal council players on the jury address only the final 2or3 finalists and not turn to the jury and put forward who they think should win the game it's very poor sportsmanship . if you do please reply to my e-mail address fhaupt99@gmail.com I THANK YOU
Jan 13, 2017   |  Reply
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