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.”

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