'Survivor' Hits 500: Jeff Probst Reflects on the Journey Toward 'Game Changers'

Jeff Probst -Game Changers - 34th season -Publicity- EMBED 2017
Robert Voets/CBS

Almost 17 years ago to the day, 16 men and women traveled to the South China Sea to play out the adventure of a lifetime.

Nearly two full decades later, Survivor rages on, albeit a long way away from Borneo. The cutthroat competition has played out all over the world, has featured hundreds of competitors across 34 seasons, and has seen more than a few twists thrown in along the way.

Across it all, through multiple schools of thought on how to approach the game, at least one constant remains: Jeff Probst, who has hosted Survivor since the days of Rowdy Rudy's Diner. These days, Probst serves as executive producer and showrunner, presiding over Survivor as it reaches its milestone 500th episode with the March 8 premiere of Survivor: Game Changers — only the fourth season in the show's history to feature a full-fledged cast of returning players.

How does Survivor reach 500 episodes? What's the draw? And really, that show's still on? Fair questions for the uninitiated, but for the Survivor faithful, the proof of the twisting-and-turning social strategy experiment lies in the hundreds of episodes that have come before. As Survivor hits the impressive (and rare) milestone 500, Probst sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for a candid conversation about the show, including his explanation for its longevity, the creative approach to arcing out each episode of the series, what to expect from Game Changers and why he views it as Survivor's version of Jaws, and much more.

Every Survivor fan has at least one story in common: the time when somebody who doesn't watch the show came up and asked, "Is that show still on?" Is it possible that you have that story, too?

I do, sure. I have it from people who genuinely don't know it's still on. And then I have it from people you can tell are trying to take a shot at me. "Oh, that show's still on? I didn't know! I don't watch TV." Then I'll say, "Right, OK." When [The Daily Show With Jon Stewart] was still on, I used to say, "Do you watch Jon Stewart?" And they would go, "Oh, I love that show." And I would go, "Oh, so you do watch TV! You're just trying to let me know you don't watch Survivor." (Laughs.) But I get it. If you don't watch Survivor, it must be the weirdest conversation for people to be having around you: "What about Russell? What about JT? Did you know Malcolm's coming back? And so is Cirie and Sandra!" Who are you even talking about? I imagine it must be like listening to someone speaking in a foreign language. But dude, if you were inside this circle? You would see that it's a really cool world. In the last two years, I've probably had five new friends who have come into my life and have decided to watch Survivor, having never watched before. All of them are now avid fans. I stick by that. I really do believe that a lot of people who don't watch Survivor would love it. The storytelling is really good. I know I'm biased; I'm part of the show. But it's very deep, rich, human behavior. Why do we do what we do? How do we justify our behavior?

How did Survivor reach 500 episodes? How has the show made it this far?

Here's the lesson I've learned: You get to 500 by just focusing on episode one, and then episode two, and then episode three. I swear to you, I never dreamed we would hit 100. I never even thought about it. I didn't even realize we were close to 500, until we got to our 34th season, and I asked: "Where are we?" And we realized that we were on 500. It was kind of mind-blowing to us. We approach every episode the same way. There's a central dramatic question of the episode: Who is going to be voted out tonight? And then we work backwards: Bill is going home tonight, the story starts, and we start laying clues to help you try to figure out what's going to happen. Some clues are deceiving. Some clues are spot on. It's up to you to figure out. That's the mystery we're unraveling, and we're playing with you.

It's a whodunnit.

It's a whodunnit. By the time the episode is over, the [preview for the next episode] should hook you into saying, "Here's who's in trouble next time." Then you have 13 episodes. Then you have 26. And before you know it, you have 100, and then you have 200. But I still approach every single episode the same way: What is the question? Who's going home? Who is going home? OK, let's start at the beginning now. We never look ahead. Episode three is done, and we move onto episode four. It sounds very pedestrian, but that's really how we do it. Then you break it down into every act that better poses a question or shows some emotion or has a reaction or somebody's making a decision. There has to be a compelling reason to come back. Not because we think you're going to leave. We know you're going to watch. But good storytelling should say, "And then…" Or, "Because of that…" Or, "But instead…" When you're watching an episode, it should feel very smooth. But we put a lot of time thinking about how [each act closes] and propels us into the next act.

Survivor does not have a script. You don't know what the ending is going to be. You discover that in the act of filming the season. That's where Survivor comes to life, clearly: on location. Can you compare that to how the show comes alive once you've captured the footage, and you begin the process of distilling 39 days into 13 or so weekly episodes?

I say this with respect to people who start with a blank piece of paper and actually create an entire world, which is clearly the mecca of writing. That's the true, pure form. I'm not comparing us in that sense. But if you were going to make a comparison to writing, we give the scenario: you're going to be abandoned on a deserted island. Here are the things you're going to have to do. Some of them you'll know, some of them will be surprises. And we pick the cast. But then we say, "The decisions you make? We're not writing them for you. You're going to make your own choices, and those actions will result in a change." When all of them are done, we bring it home and we go, "We have our story. Now we just have to carve it out and share how much we show and how much we don't show." It's not dissimilar to an episode of Scandal, where we're going to show you a cliff-hanger. Did he do it or not? We're not going to tell you. That's the cliff-hanger. I'm really influenced by a lot of my friends who are writers. I listen to them tell me what they like about the show, and it helps me understand what we can do better, because they're writers saying, "Here's what you guys are doing that appeals to me as a writer."

I'm always really careful to say that I'm not comparing Survivor to a scripted show; it's only in terms of your question. I do feel like we're writing the show, but it's based on what they've said to us. One of the things we hold really dear is that when we finish an episode, it has to authentically represent what happened. Survivor is not one of those shows where you see a lot of franken-bited stories where you go, "That guy never said anything close to that." This is what happened. We may truncate a story, or we may highlight one person for a moment, but it's representative of what happens. The only people who ever complain are the few villains who go, "I'm not that mean!" You're probably not that mean, but you did say those things. 

When you know that your season premiere is the 500th episode of the series, does that add any extra heft to the episode? Do you view it at all as Survivor: The Movie, or in any other way that acknowledges the achievement?

The true answer is, no. It's monumental to us on the creative side because we're proud. We have spent a lot of our time in the jungle. Whether you like Survivor or not, we like it. We're really proud that we've done what we think is a really good television show, going on two decades now. When it came down to Day 1 of Season 34, it was, "Let's maroon them in an interesting way. Let's give them a twist and hope it works. If it doesn't? Maybe Day 2 will be better. And if it isn't? Maybe Day 3!" And so on. We live and die by their behavior. So no, it didn't have any more heft. I think it's an interesting question, because it does speak to sticking the course and staying with the format. This is the show. Five hundred is the same as 432, which is the same as episode 22. It just happens to be our 500th. I love that it's on a premiere and I love that it's on a season called Game Changers. It all kind of lined up. When this is done, it'll just be another season.

What can we look forward to this season? How would you set up for Game Changers for someone who doesn't already know the concept?

Game Changers is kind of like an NBA all-star game. If you brought back 20 people who have played before, and every single one of them wants the ball and wants to shoot at all times, what would happen? Would you get a shootout? What would you get? That's what we wanted to find out. Typically on Survivor, you have a group of leaders, some followers, some people who are strong in one area and weaker in another. In this, they do have one thing in common: they have been deemed by us as people who want to play. They are willing to risk being wrong in order to move further in the game. I get criticized for this comment all the time, that it's bullshit, but the reason why I believe you have to make big moves is that if you want to win, you have to go for it. If it's the bottom of the ninth and there are two outs and two guys on base, yeah you could try to get a walk or a single. But if you want to win? Jack one into deep centerfield and let's get out of here. That's how I would want to play. Could you limp your way to a victory on Survivor? Of course. That doesn't mean it's any less worthy. It's not how I would play, and I would prove historically that the best players have made big moves. That was the criteria. What you're going to see is a very interesting experiment, because what happened was not what we expected. I expected a bloodbath out of the gate. Instead, I've been saying it's more similar to Jaws, because I felt like it was this ocean with a shark and everybody knew that somebody was going to get eaten. Instead of attacking the shark, everybody was just trying to get out of the water….

But eventually, that boat is getting smaller and smaller.

Exactly! Eventually, you're dead! (Laughs.) It was almost like it was a dating show and everybody was surveying the crowd: "Who do I want to be with?" But early on, by episodes three, four and five, it is game on, and everybody watch out.

The season features a few former winners, including Tony Vlachos, winner of Survivor Cagayan. There's no doubt that he's a Game Changer.

No doubt. Tony is the personification of a Game Changer. You can list out a half a dozen ways he changed the game. Here's the fun thing about Game Changers: The people who are willing to risk everything in order to go further are also the people who are willing to come back and play again. Tony could not say yes fast enough. When you think about it, here's a guy who already won. Nothing to prove. He won in such a big way. Who's going to trust him? Nobody. And he knew that and said, "I know it. I get it. I know I have an uphill battle — and I'm in. I don't care when and I don't care where, I'm in." Same with Sandra [Diaz-Twine, the only two-time winner in Survivor history, also returning for Game Changers]. I can't think of many people who would play a game like Survivor and win once, then come back again and win again, and would ever say yes for a third time. Why! Think about it. You can go out as the only two-time winner to never be voted out, or risk it all. Lynne Spillman, our casting director, called Sandra for the season, and it was a missed call. Sandra texted Lynne back and said: "Whatever it is, the answer is yes." You can't ask for anything more than that. There's no one like Sandra. I couldn't believe she said yes. When we put the list together, we thought there was no way she would say yes, but we had to ask her. And she did. We called Tony, we called Sandra, I believe we called [Malcolm Freberg and Ozzy Lusth] next, and it was four yeses out of the gate. We thought, "This is going to work. These guys are who we think they are. They're going to continue to play, as long as we ask them."

Based on interviewing Survivor players over the years, it's rare to find the person who would not want to come back given the chance. There seems to be something that draws these people into wanting to return, like it's a Siren's song. 

I like that analogy a lot. That feels pure to me, that it's this Siren's song, calling and beckoning on so many levels. It's the allure of this really amazing game, where millions and millions of dollars are spent for me to play, and there are only 20 of us, and I can win, and I'm going to be challenged to live in the wild and catch fish and build shelter and play in challenges and vote people out and strategize. It's overwhelming, but it's intoxicating. And then? It's gone. The other part of it is there's a Siren call in our soul. There's something in us as humans that's drawn to that animal, caveman question: "Can I do it?" People who don't watch Survivor or only watch it on a certain level don't fully understand that it's actually real. You get so much baloney now on television and in the news, but Survivor is real. That's a real cyclone coming through. That's really a handful of rice they're getting for the entire day. When I talk to people, even the people who don't want to actually do it? They will say, "I live it. And when I watch them, I imagine it. Can I do that?" I'll tell you, it speaks to me. This is my seventeenth year, and it still speaks to me. When they show up to a challenge or they show up to Tribal Council, I get the same electricity: "Life is happening right now." There's nowhere to hide on Survivor. It's not a game show in which you answer the right trivia question and you win a thousand dollars. 

You have to roll your sleeves up if you want to succeed, assuming you still have sleeves.

Right. Everything you have in this game is coming directly from you and your actions, starting from the minute you stepped in. Are you a good person, or a bad person? Are you cordial with people? Are you good at reading people? Do you have any self-awareness? Do you realize that perception is reality? Are you helping around camp? Are you just strategizing? Will you find an idol? Can you win a challenge? How do you avoid a vote? Can you vote somebody out? Are you controlling your alliance? Are you at the bottom of the alliance? Every single thing that happens is on you — so if you do win this game? You've kicked some serious ass. 

There's a rule change this season: in the event of a tie vote, players will no longer have the opportunity to revote. Instead, they move straight to the tiebreaker, an open forum with which to reach a unanimous decision as a tribe — or else risk going home by picking the wrong rock out of a bag. An informal poll shows that fans are split on this one. Do you find that's often the case when you introduce a new twist?

Yeah, and it makes sense, because we don't really know how it's going to play. People aren't always necessarily sure why we're doing it. For me, that's one of the things that connects me to the Survivor community: the trust on both sides. Trusting us to try things, and us trusting the Survivor community to be honest about what they think. It's too early to know if it's a good idea or not, but I can tell you what the impetus for it was. 

Please do.

This one's on me. I can't say our entire team loves this idea. I get frustrated in the first few episodes when we do two tribes and there are 10 people and an alliance of seven will force a split vote to see if there's an idol, because they can. And there's no invoice. My philosophy on Survivor is everything should cost them something. This does not cost them anything. So let's try doing this. You can try to split the vote. But if you're wrong and it ends up in a tie? You go to rocks. So there are two ways this can work in terms of big picture. One is that everyone goes, "Let's avoid ties. Let's just have 9-1 votes and 8-1 votes." That could happen, but only for a short while. Alliances will kick in. The other option is that somebody on the bottom could force a tie to get themselves out of a jam and force a rock draw so they can get a second life. We'll see how it goes this season. We may do it again next season. We may try something else. We may abandon it and go right back. But what we wanted to accomplish this season with Game Changers is constantly give them opportunities to play. Fans are going to see this season that there are all sorts of things in play.

Former players are celebrating the upcoming episode online with #Survivor500, posting photos and recording videos around the world. [Season 12 and 31 castaway] Terry Deitz is taking selfies while he's flying planes, [Game Changers castmember] Aubry Bracco recently met a group of fans from Costa Rica, Boston Rob and Amber [who met on Survivor and have both won the show] posted a picture of their children wearing Survivor buffs. In a very real way, Survivor is all over the world, and it's literally created life. That must make you very proud.

Oh, yeah. When I see something like Rob and Amber, who have a family now, and they met on Survivor, fell in love on Survivor and they both won Survivor — and he proposed to her on Survivor? It's pretty special. He built her engagement ring in my house. He was so popular that he couldn't go into a diamond store, so we worked on it undercover. Yeah, I feel a huge connection. I think one of the biggest misperceptions about me is that I'm on some level cold toward the players. Because when we're on the show, I'm business. I may be rooting for you in my underdog soul, but you have to get yourself out of this jam. This isn't on me. I'll snuff your torch just like anyone else's. I won't lose any sleep at night over it. But I have such respect for the 498 people who have played this game. I really do. Millions around the world watch it, and only a handful percentage wise have ever had the courage to actually come out and play, knowing they're probably going to lose, knowing they might be humiliated, that they might break down and cry in front of the world. There are so many places where you're vulnerable. You are literally at times naked. And yet, here they come, saying, "I want another shot." I have mad respect for that.

Will Survivor reach a thousand episodes?

Oh man.

Too soon?

Yeah. Yeah, I'm going to bet against that. I'm going to short that stock. It won't be with me as host. I would be 110 years old. (Laughs.) Can we just shoot for 40 seasons?

Is that the next milestone?

It is for some of the guys on the show. I take nothing for granted. We have to deliver a show that is so good that you're going to watch next week. That's it. If anyone says anything otherwise, they've lost the plot. You can't ever take your audience for granted. I never take them for granted. I'm saying to my crew all the time, all the time: "Remember, imagine a family at home trying to eat. Kids are doing homework. There's a dog running through. They are taking precious time out of their day to watch our show. It has to be phenomenal." I know we can deliver for adults. Where we pay special attention is to the kids, to make sure the show is always safe for kids to watch — we're never going to put parents in a situation where they're going to go, "Oh, come on. You have to warn me if you're going to show that." We will not do that. We might make an error in judgment and we show somebody killing a chicken and you might have an issue with that, but OK; that's fair game on Survivor. I take the family viewing experience very seriously because I have kids and I know how hard it is to find shows that you trust, that you can let kids watch without us, that you hear the music and see the logo and you know they're in good hands and maybe they'll be on the show one day.

In that regard, you're essentially talking about the person who just won your most recent season: Adam Klein, who grew up as a huge Survivor fan, so much so that he used to play versions of the game with fans online. As you're looking ahead to future seasons, are you seeking that level of super fandom in your players? Or is it just a matter of finding people who seem hungry and thirsty enough to play?

It's a great question, because I'm tending more toward fans. The risk you have with putting people on the show who don't know the game is the same risk you have of having a final poker table with people who can't play poker. On one hand, you can say, well, they're easy pickings. They'll get voted out of the game quickly and the good poker players will be left. The risk is, they mess up the game because they go all in when they shouldn't and the better player goes, "I know you beat me, but that was a terrible move. Good players don't play that way." Is it fair? Yeah. Is it the kind of poker you want to see? Not really. I'll admit, when I see somebody who is a super fan and they're a great potential player, they go to the top of the list, because I know you know how to play, and I know you want to play. You will go look for an idol, you will risk playing it for somebody else, you might give a reward to somebody strategically — all of the things you hope will happen in a season — versus the guy who says, "I want to play with honor and try to get to the end." OK…not sure about that. 

Survivor aired its 33rd season last fall. The new season premieres this week. You're shipping out for the next season soon. The following season shoots shortly after that, so you must already be thinking about Season 36. Is this typically the busiest time of the year for Survivor?

You're exactly right. This is the busiest time. You're in post for one season, you're in casting for two seasons, you have to figure out creative for two seasons, you have people on the ground on location already setting up… it's a lot. But it's also a really fun time. So much of your energy is in Survivor. But I do find that I have to take breaks from it. There will be weeks when I'm not working on Survivor, other than the episodes, which always seems weird to me, given how close we are. But my brain overloads. I think it's true for the whole creative team. Sometimes we'll go, "OK, let's have another meeting in 10 days! Let's separate ourselves a little bit." But I'm very excited about what we're doing for both seasons next year. We're pretty close to being done with casting. There are some amazing new people. We haven't shot a frame, but based on the people we have? I'm excited to get out there.

Are you already thinking about Season 37?

You can't possibly. Honestly, we don't know where the show will be. We watch what happens, and that influences what we want to do the next year. We have ideas we think people might like. Maybe fans will like this. Maybe they'll like that. But let's see where the show goes. Maybe we're going to go too far one day and go, "We have to dial it back." Or maybe we'll realize we have to keep going and keep pushing forward. But I say it all the time: It's the greatest job that I could ever hope to have. You're living in this creative environment in which you're pushing and pulling not just with the players, but also with the people who watch. We all play a part. We produce the show that these people star in and that you watch, and you tell us what you think, and we then augment what we're doing with a new group of people, and you watch that and tell us what you think. It's a triangle of creativity. It's very cool. Think about how many scripted shows have that, really? I like it. I like the feedback. I don't mind when people criticize the show. I don't mind when people hate something we did. That's important to hear. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I disagree, but it doesn't matter, as long as we're all honest. If you keep watching it, we'll keep making it. 

What are your thoughts on Survivor reaching 500 episodes? Keep checking THR.com/Survivor all season long for recaps, interviews and more, and keep the conversation going with THR's Survivor expert Josh Wigler on Twitter @roundhoward.