Almost one year ago, Jeff Probst took a sheet of paper and headed to a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Studio City, Calif. He told his wife he wouldn’t return until he cracked the concept for the upcoming season of “Survivor.”
The caffeine-fueled result of his labors is “Survivor: Ghost Island,” in which 16 new contestants will once again outwit, outplay and outlast each other for $1 million — this time, strategizing with immunity relics from seasons past. (Anyone remember when James Clement was voted off “Survivor: China” despite an idol in each shorts pocket?)
And of course, there’s a real “Ghost Island” as well. It’s a small, secluded spot off the coast of Fiji where a player banished from his or her tribe must trek up to the top of a steep, palm tree-strewn dirt hill, sleep on a makeshift “bed” under a mobile consisting of 35 previously used torch snuffers, stare out at game memorabilia and figure out a way to stay in the competition. Burning coconut husks on the island add to the moody ambiance.
“It’s a corny, over-the-top idea,” Probst freely admits.
When Variety visited Probst on set at “Ghost Island,” it was Day 1 of production, and even though he’s invoked the phrase “the tribe has spoken” for the past 17 years, the host and executive producer couldn’t contain his excitement for the new installment.
“I love that we’re playing on the fact that there’s a place where all bad decisions live and can haunt you! There’s folklore!” Probst says.
When a reality show has been on the air since the summer of 2000, the word “folklore” has actual significance. Now on the eve of its 36th season, “Survivor” has itself managed to outlast a slew of clones and cousins. And while the show no longer pulls in eye-popping numbers, ratings have been steady. Its December finale garnered 8.74 million viewers, on par with numbers from a year prior. And die-hard fans took to social media in droves to discuss changes to the method in which players voted out the third runner up.
Show executives say the secret to “Survivor’s” enduring popularity goes back to the end of the last century, when British producer Charlie Parsons conceived of the idea of strangers competing for big bucks on a remote island and voting each other off, one by one.
“It’s a bullet-proof format,” says producer John Kirhoffer, who has created those grueling immunity and reward obstacle course challenges since the first season in Borneo. “He knew people would be riveted if you get rid of someone every week. It’s not just a game show, it’s an unscripted drama.”
Echoes Probst, bumped up to exec producer in 2010, “We take a group of interesting people, put them together and force them to vote someone out. That’s really good.”
Nonetheless, people who haven’t tuned in since a Boston College student named Elisabeth Filarski (now Hasselbeck) competed in Australia in 2001 would be surprised by its evolution. The challenge of adapting on an island without the comforts of home in various remote parts of the world is a narrative non-factor. Producers have no desire to the move the show out of the sun-drenched, blue-water ocean confines of Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands — its home base for the past four seasons and counting. But forming alliances with tribemates is now just one part of the intricate game play. Contestants, most of whom grew upwatching the show, now come to play in a chess-like mental and physical sport.
“[‘Ghost Island’] was a huge leap forward in that sense,” says Probst. “It’s not dissimilar to the NFL in which great players make great plays and when it’s over, they congratulate the victor out of respect.”
And the final tribal council, formerly a Q&A in which ousted players (i.e., “the jury”) aired individual grievances, is now an open-forum discussion.
Even the challenges — all of which are mapped out and approved before Kirhoffer and his team of 24 staffers arrive to location — have developed, becoming a battle of both brains and brawn. “In the old days, whoever ran fastest through the woods would win,” he says. “Now we have a puzzle element at the end to balance everything out. It’s more dramatic when someone says ‘Oh my god, I’m starving and just pushed myself as hard as I can and now I might miss out on $1 million.’”
Not every pivot has been a win. In the 2010 Nicaragua season, Probst introduced a twist advantage called a Medallion of Power, which was such a fail that it vanished halfway through the season. The “Cook Islands” edition back in 2006 sparked outrage when it divided up contestants by ethnicity. That was a one-and-done.
“The pressure to keep the show fresh keeps me up at night,” Probst says. “I remind the crew all the time that if you have three bad seasons in a row, you’re done. I spend all my free time thinking about what’s happening in the world culturally and how that can influence our social experiment.”
Probst has nixed a Democrats vs. Republicans season, though, saying his fear is that “a Hillary Clinton supporter would never align with a Donald Trump supporter. People are so entrenched in their political philosophies.”
The show’s knack for turning average Joes and Janes into memorable characters has stayed remarkably consistent — thanks in part, says Probst, to the impressive brainpower behind the scenes. Mark Burnett, the mega-producer behind everything from “Shark Tank” to “The Bible,” still sits in on the final casting sessions. “These people come in the room and they’re like ‘Mark Burnett? You’re here?!’” Probst says.
The final cast sign-off, though, still belongs to CBS Corporation CEO and President Leslie Moonves. “Leslie doesn’t give you a reason why,” Probst says. “He’ll just say ‘I don’t find them interesting.’ We’ll want a player, and he’ll say no, and it’s the right move. I’m watching these geniuses work and soaking in everything I can.’”
Probst is already mapping out seasons 37 and 38. How long can he and the show go? “As long as people show up, we’ll continue to take a few leaps and have fun. I’ll just need someone to push me around in a rocking chair,” he says.
“Survivor: Ghost Island” premieres Feb. 28 at 8pm on CBS.