×

Jeff Probst: Strong ‘Survivor’

The tribal leader is still learning lessons about the TV biz

Survivor” might not have been the first reality competition show — depending on whom you ask — but it certainly set the modern standard. It may seem everyday business now, but back in 2000, proving that simmering psychodrama between an oft-naked corporate consultant, an acerbic truck driver and a rafting coach on a Malaysian island could draw more eyeballs than “Friends,” “Monday Night Football” and the Oscars registered as a seismic disruption in television.

In fact, Jeff Probst, the show’s longtime host and current exec producer, is still grappling with the precedent he helped set.

“When ‘Survivor’ started 13 years ago, I kind of knew nothing about TV, to be honest. So when they told me that more than 50 million people watched the first season finale, I though, ‘Oh, well that’s cool,’ ” he says, laughing. “I had no idea the impact it was having.”

As Probst has grown into his seemingly permanent role on the seemingly deathless show, he’s certainly learned a bit about the folly of trying to predict the fickle forces of crowd dynamics, whether those crowds comprise contestants or viewers. After all, ‘Survivor’ can be seen just as much as a for-profit sociology experiment as a reality competition.

“I don’t have a formal background in psychology,” Probst says. “But I do have a big interest — I’ve certainly been to a bit of therapy and read a lot of books (on it). I’m really fascinated by why we do the things we do, and I look at my own life that way too. I have my triggers too, and I often put myself into the game and say, ‘This would get me. My ego would get me here, or my insecurity get me here, or the need to be right would get me here,’ and look at where I would self-combust.”

Indeed, Probst professes fascination with the ways contestants’ individual psychologies often get in the way of winning strategies. For example, any fan of the show knows that players often vote off the most capable leaders in the cast, knowing that they’ll be fiercer competition later on when push comes to shove. Yet as much as contestants may be aware of this, certain facets of one’s personality are difficult to suppress.

“There’s no predicting how one human will react in any situation,” Probst says. “In the sixth or seventh season there started to be this groundswell of observation, which was, ‘Why do these people keep making the same mistakes as earlier seasons? Don’t they know better by now?’

“And I kind of bought into that for a couple of seasons too, until one day I realized, it’s in our nature. If I’m a leader, I’m going to lead. No matter what I say when I’m sitting there on the couch (beforehand), under extreme conditions, my natural instinct will be to say, ‘I know this will make me a target, but I can’t just sit here and watch you fumble around with the shelter, I’ve got to take charge.’ ”

Probst’s own self-discovery process has seen him branch into a number of unfamiliar environs over the past few years. For starters, he will return to the  film director’s chair later this year with his second feature, Kiss Me, and he also penned a vaguely Survivor-themed young adult novel, titled Stranded, which hit bookstores last February.

And then there was the one high-profile misstep. Last fall Probst launched a daytime talker, only to have “Survivor’”s iconic “outlast” directive come back and bite him. Thanks to low ratings, “The Jeff Probst Show” was canceled by CBS TV Distribution before the end of its first season.

Yet Probst takes a stoic approach to the failed venture.

“A lot of people told me that the type of show I wanted to do wouldn’t work, and it turned out they were right,” he says. “Part of that was me being stubborn, and probably being naive toward the habits of the daytime audience.”

He also emerged from the experience with a new appreciation for, and experience with, the intricacies of interviewing. He’s particularly enthusiastic in discussing the interviewing techniques he honed on the show, which he hopes to put into larger play for future Tribal Councils.

“I used to approach Tribal as though anytime there was a really great answer, I would try to put a button on it, so that we could have a little moment,” he says. “Then I realized maybe I would be more effective if I talked just a whole lot less. Now, though you don’t see it in the cut, I’m very likely to ask a question and if I don’t get the answer I’m looking for, I’ll just wait. … The key to my job is to keep turning the story, without being seen as the one holding the key.”

Probst has already received four Emmys for his work on Survivor. And the show was recently renewed for its 28th season, for which Probst will continue to occupy his usual role. Yet streaks can only last so long, and the show has seen a slow, steady decline in ratings over the past decade, perhaps inevitably slipping from a peak average of 28.9 million viewers in its second season, to hovering around the 20 million range for the next five, and finally settling into its current rung as a steady 10 million viewer draw.

Yet the ratings attrition has been notably less precipitous than many shows of comparable lineage, and the most recent season’s ratings actually improved from beginning to end over the previous spring, suggesting the format might still have some legs left after all.

For his part, Probst sees no cause to plan for life as a “Survivor”-survivor just yet.

“Part of it is that I’m naturally enthusiastic,” he says. “But I also feel like we’ve got a sort of second wind. We’re closing in on Idol in the demo so fast that I started envisioning a time in which Survivor, the show that started it, could actually still be there when some of these newer shows aren’t. It really came home to me when (contestant) Malcolm (Freberg) came out and said, ‘I was 10 when this show came on the air, I can’t believe I’m on here now.’ I’m meeting 10-year-olds now. And it does go through my head — could we last that long?

“Besides, with or without me, the star on Survivor is the format itself. It’s a really simple concept as long as you execute it well, maintain the show’s integrity, and get out of the way.”

More TV

  • Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, NDF Team to

    Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, NDF Team to Form FictionMagnet

    ZDF Enterprises, a division of German broadcasting powerhouse ZDF, has partnered with independent production outfit Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft (“Mountain Medic”), to form FictionMagnet Producktions. The new entity will develop and produce fictional TV formats for ZDF. NDF will hold 51% of the joint venture and ZDF 49%. The company will be based in Unterfohring and [...]

  • Homecoming

    'Homecoming' Showrunner Eli Horowitz to Head Series Mania UGC Writers Campus

    Eli Horowitz, creator and showrunner of the Julia Roberts-led Amazon series “Homecoming,” will be the president of the UGC Writers Campus at annual series showcase Series Mania. The Campus is a week-long writing workshop for emerging TV drama writers from Europe. Twenty screenwriters were chosen from more than 100 applicants. The workshop will be run [...]

  • duncanville

    'Duncanville' Starring Amy Poehler: TV Review

    Lovable dirtbag families have been the core of Fox’s Sunday “Animation Domination” lineup for years, a truth further underlined by the fact that its newest entry “Duncanville” comes from longtime “Simpsons” producers Mike and Julie Thacker Scully. Along with co-creator Amy Poehler, they’ve now made a show about a family more tied to the present [...]

  • Chaka Khan arrives at the Vanity

    Chaka Khan Joins Fergie in Pantheon of Memorable NBA National Anthem Performances

    It takes a lot to make a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” before the NBA All-Star Game trend higher on social media than the game itself, but Chaka Khan has managed what Fergie was able to two years ago, with a unique rendering of the National Anthem that threatened to render anything that followed [...]

  • Jason Davis

    Jason Davis, Voice Actor on Disney Channel's 'Recess,' Dies at 35

    Jason Davis, a voice actor on the Disney Channel show “Recess,” died in Los Angeles on Sunday. He was 35. “I am so heartbroken to share the saddest news of my life that my son Jason Davis passed away this morning in Los Angeles. Jason had a true heart of gold with such a zest [...]

  • Caroline Flack

    'Love Island’ Pulled For Second Night After Former Host Caroline Flack’s Death

    For a second consecutive night, ‘Love Island’ will not air on U.K. broadcaster ITV2 following the death of former host Caroline Flack, Variety has confirmed. An ITV spokesman said: “Many people at ITV knew Caroline well and held her in great affection. All of us are absolutely devastated at this tragic news.” “After careful consultation between [...]

  • Caroline Flack

    Caroline Flack's Death Prompts U.K. Petition Demanding Media Inquiry

    A petition calling on the U.K. government to launch an inquiry into British media coverage of public figures has garnered close to 206,000 signatures. The death of former “Love Island” host Caroline Flack, one of the country’s most popular TV personalities, spurred the initiative, which asks government to investigate the press following “the maltreatment of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content