Survivor’s Jeff Probst Reveals the Key to Winning: ‘Heart’

Executive Producer Jeff Probst.
Robert Voets/CBS/Getty

“The topics that come up on the show are always of the moment because the people are of the moment.”

For the past 23 years, Survivor host and producer Jeff Probst has been a mainstay on our televisions, and year after year he continues to be amazed by the game. “I am constantly inspired—and then five minutes later deliciously entertained—by some incredible blind side.” Now entering its 45th season (September 27), Probst says “what makes this job so fun is that we get to redesign the game every season and then turn it over to a new group of humans to see what they do with it.” And it’s those humans that make the game so unpredictable. “We have no say on who stays or who goes, we have no say in who finds an idol or what they do with it. We have no say on who’s going to win a challenge. All we’re doing is watching.” To Probst, it’s in how players connect that resonates so much with viewers, because “we often see ourselves in the players.” But in the end, it really is a game of strategy, sure, but mostly heart. “If you give your heart to it, it can change your entire life and how you see the world and how the world sees you.”


Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.

It’s the most obvious question, but what can we expect from the new season?

But it is a legit question, especially given our history where, for so many seasons, we either themed it based around a country or we would theme it based around a big idea that was the name of the season. But really, when we redesigned the game for Survivor 41, the long-term goal was to create a world where uncertainty was so prevalent, that the uncertainty in and of itself was an obstacle. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We put in a lot of new dangerous twists in the game, and those first couple of seasons players were really caught off guard and in many ways, I think the game played them. But what we felt was, if we can ride this for a while, that we’ll get to a point where we’re deep enough into the new era [of the game] that the players know to expect the unexpected. And as a result, they’re better prepared to adapt to whatever might happen. And so in terms of your question, I think what it really means is with each [new] season, the gameplay is going to get more sophisticated and nuanced as the players begin to take the game back in their hands. And you really see that in 45. I think it’s a significant shift in terms of players coming in and saying, “We know what might be coming at us. So we don’t have to worry about that. Because we know it might be coming at us.” So I really think this is going to be a really great season of layered strategy. And we have 90 minutes. So we have time to really explore it and show it.

Everyone is so excited about it being 90 minutes. It makes me wonder, all this other footage you have from past seasons, what happens to it? And do you have any plans to do anything with it?

Well, we do release [some]. We used to call them secret scenes, we call them lots of things. But those are really the way we do it. And as we cut the episode, even we’re aware of the time constraints because we’re on linear, we have to be specific. But we still [run] maybe 10 minutes long, which is a lot of extra scenes. And then you have those tough decisions of what do we pull out? Like, we hate losing this, but strategically we can lose it and the game still makes sense. And then we put them online. But I have been thinking more about it, it’s interesting timing of your question, because this season, I don’t know if we’ll have as many extra scenes because we have much more time to put them into the episode. But in general, I have been talking to CBS just about how can we package this in a way that takes a fan that wants to know, and instead of just putting the scene up there, can we give it context? Can we say, “Here’s how it did impact the game,” and doesn’t change anything by not being in the episode. But it’s like seeing a scene in a movie that you had to pull but it tells you something about the characters.

And fans really see those changes, in exciting ways, especially last season, with the underdogs Carson Garrett, Carolyn Wiger and Yam Yam Arocho dominating the game. The show was even recognized at the Emmys again after a 17-year absence. What do you think it was about last season that made it stand out?

I say great players make great seasons. And what is great to me is somebody who comes to play. We always say to players, the only advice we can give you is to play the first time as though you’re playing for the second time. Because when you’re playing for the second time, you’re not as worried anymore about swinging for the fence. Because you can’t win Survivor if you’re playing to not lose. No jury will ever give you the money, even if you make it to the end. They’re playing, so they want to reward somebody who’s playing. So that’s what I mean by a great player. So, I loved Survivor 44 because great players make great seasons, and we had an amazing group of people. And that’s not because we shifted the game design, that’s directly related to our casting team. We specifically talked about the type of person we wanted to put on the show while we were down during COVID. And it was a real shift. And so our casting team knows the kind of people we want on the show, and they’re excellent at finding them and getting them ready for what will be the biggest adventure of their life. And so being acknowledged by the Emmys after such a long time is really rewarding, because there’s no better compliment than to have your peers recognize your work. And it means a lot to everybody. We’re a giant show. We have a crew of 400 main, and then another 400 local, so you’re almost at 1000 people that make Survivor.

How do you think the show has remained so culturally relevant over the years?

It’s a great question. I don’t know that I have the answer. This is really only a guess, because I’ve talked about this with people a lot. But I tend to think it comes down to two things. The first is that while the format of Survivor is a cleverly designed game of social politics, the real takeaway for the player runs much deeper. Survivor is an individual test that forces you out of your comfort zone and challenges your own ideas of what you’re capable of achieving, if you just say yes to the adventure, and the audience takes that ride along with the players. We often see ourselves in the players, we say, “I would never do that. I wonder if I could do that. Oh, my God, that challenge is right up my alley. I can’t believe they made that decision.” You’re disguising a hero’s journey inside this game centered around human behavior. I think that’s one reason, something in us is drawn to this journey that they’re on. The second reason is the topics that come up on the show are always of the moment because the people are of the moment. Whatever’s happening in our culture often ends up finding its way into Survivor. And that keeps it timely and authentic to where we are. If you were to go back and watch the previous 44 seasons in order, you could see where our culture was at any given time and how dramatically it shifted over the course of 22 years. You look back at seasons 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and then you look at season 44, we’re different. The way we talk is different. The things we talk about are different.

And part of that change is how we talk about diversity, gender and representation. And Survivor has been a big part of that change, in many ways being an influencer for that change, especially in regards to showing different types of people working together. How do you think Survivor has been part of that change?

I think you kind of said it, [and] just to repeat, it goes back to the type of people you put on the show. We are looking for people who at their core are fundamentally good people. That doesn’t mean you will like everyone or agree with everyone or the things they say, but we are looking for people that you want to invest in. Somebody like Yam Yam. He’s very unique and he may not be for everybody, but you can’t deny that he’s an authentically likable, funny person. And then who would ever imagine the Yam Yam would end up in a very tight friendship with someone like Carolyn, who at first glance, you think maybe shouldn’t even be on the show. And then you find out she’s incredibly clever and she’s going to use your instant judgment [of her] against you in a way that’s going to make you second-guess ever judging somebody again. And then those two end up with Carson. Those three players would…you would never look at the beginning of season 44 and say, “Well, I put those three together, they’ll be a great pair.” But because of the game design that forces you to rely on each other to survive in a real jungle with no help, while simultaneously deciding who to conspire against, leads to these, as you said, these really interesting and honest conversations that often center around our differences. How did we end up together? And how can we use our differences to be a force rather than the differences separating us, we can make these differences strengths for each of us. But it takes the right people, it takes people who see the world that way. And to your point, you put different people on the show, this could be just one big argument. But when we get it right, it can be really powerful and beautiful. And a great example that we don’t always have to be at odds with each other, even if we are different.

Cirie Fields is a past player who is often credited with really changing the type of players who want to compete. She opened the door for the “couch potatoes.” What impact do you think she had on the game?

Well, the type of people we put on the show has definitely changed over the years, but Cirie would have been on the show in any season and would be if she applied today. What made Cirie so unique at the time she did apply was she really was the first person that essentially said, “I’m going to get up off of my comfortable couch and I’m going to go try this and there is nothing about me that should be out there living in the jungle other than my desire to see if I could go out there and live in the jungle.” Cirie’s in the Survivor Hall of Fame, and she may be the single best ambassador the show has ever had. Everybody involved with Survivor loves Cirie. But what I think really cemented her with people is [her] having the courage to put herself out there. And if you if you watch her first few days on her first season, she is the epitome of a fish out of water, but she hung in there and she adapted, and then slowly discovered that her immense social skills and her undeniable likability were a real asset in this game of social politics. And I think it was that confidence that unleashed her fate, to use her very savvy approach to strategy, which then turned her into one of the most powerful players who’s ever played the game. She’s never gonna win Survivor, we know that, she came close twice [but] it wasn’t meant to be. That has no bearing on her ranking as a great player. Cirie has it all. It doesn’t surprise me that she could go on to another show and do well and then go on to Big Brother and do well. She’s a really cool human that’s very, very smart and very charming. And even though you know all of this, she can still find a way to get you to trust her knowing she will probably betray you, and she’ll do it with this beautiful smile that makes you go, “Well, if it had to be anybody, I’m glad it was Cirie.”

I mean, if you can lose the game and still be considered a legend, you’re a bada**.

We tell people this all the time before the show begins. We say just in terms of what I know, you’re already all thinking, “I hope I get asked back to play again.” And you haven’t even played one minute of your season. So, we’ll just answer that question for you. How far you go in the game has zero bearing on whether we invite you back or not. We invite people back that we thought really came out and played. That’s simply it. Boston Rob [Mariano] was like fourth or something the first time he played. I remember him sitting in the hallway of the hotel as we’re getting ready to leave to go to the airport, and I remember him saying, “Hey, Probst invite me back. I got more game in me.” And I remember thinking, “I know you do. It doesn’t matter that you were fourth out. You played.” And when you play, you make a decision and you’re out. But the flip side of playing from fear, to not mess up: Well have fun; you’re never coming back. And you’re never going to win. It’s a terrible idea. So, I think really that’s ultimately what it’s about.

You’ve been on our TVs for more than 20 years; you’re a constant presence throughout all the changes we experience, which is comforting. We know Jeff Probst will be there. What keeps you coming back?

Well, I appreciate what you said. I love Survivor, and I don’t mean like a sycophant. The format is tremendous. And I love people. I love watching how we behave and observing how quickly we can find ways to justify our ethics. What makes this job so fun is that we get to redesign the game every season and then turn it over to a new group of humans to see what they do with it. We have no say on who stays or who goes, we have no say in who finds an idol or what they do with it. We have no say on who’s going to win a challenge. All we’re doing is watching. I say to players often, “Just remember the game is the MacGuffin, [it’s] not about the game design. It’s what you do with it.” So that’s why, even in early 41 and 42 [seasons] and players were frustrated with all the twists, I would say you can be frustrated all you want but all you’re doing is taking your eyes off the prize. The game is here. I’m constantly, and I mean this, constantly inspired by the people we put on the show and despite what they might think, I’m their biggest fan because I’m a witness to what they go through in pursuit of their dream. I can assure you, it’s never easy. Survivor is 100 percent real, there’s no help off screen, there’s no bathroom, there’s no contact with the outside world. It’s a completely immersive experience that takes you from your ordinary world and drops you in the middle of a jungle and challenges you emotionally, physically and mentally. And I get a front row seat to watch. I am constantly inspired and then five minutes later deliciously entertained by some incredible blind side. I see a shocked face as somebody realizes they made the wrong move. I like it all. Because it is just a game. But it’s a game that if you give your heart to it, it can change your entire life and how you see the world and how the world sees you.

In the early years, the show was set in various locations, but now it’s primarily set in Fiji. So what I really want to know, do you ever get sick of the beach?

It’s a fair question. If you look at our history, we went all over the world for years. And that was really fun. I mean, going into somewhere like Cambodia where you get to go to Angkor Wat and have your mind blown and then use it in your show is really very rare in terms of being a show producer. But after this many years, I have come to believe that the location is not as significant as the people and the format. And the reason I said I love this format is it’s a very small box. You take a group of strangers, you force them to rely on each other while voting each other out. But as long as you stay inside of that box, it’s gigantic. It’s endless. There are nooks and crannies everywhere and you can try so many things. I could have an idea this morning, watching my dog take a nap, and say, “How can we get that same peaceful feeling in a player, so they aren’t seeing what’s coming behind their back? How it’s like a dog when they take a nap.” You can have that kind of metaphor and turn it into something you can use on the show. Anything can work on Survivor, so I never really spend any time anymore thinking about where we should shoot the show. I spend all of my time thinking what should we try next on the show?

Listen to H. Alan Scott on Newsweek’s Parting Shot. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Twitter: @HAlanScott


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