Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst Reflect on 34 Seasons of 'Survivor'

The longtime collaborators look back on the series and the "emotion" surrounding Zeke Smith's onscreen outing during a conversation with THR at the 'Survivor: Game Changers' finale.
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Thirty minutes. That's all that stands between Jeff Probst and the beginning of the end of Survivor.

Okay, that sounds dramatic. Everybody relax: it's not the beginning of the end of Survivor writ large. It's merely the end of Game Changers, the most recent edition of the enduring reality competition series. Probst sits in his dressing room backstage at CBS Studios in Studio City, keeping cool, calm and collected before the live portion of the night begins. He's so relaxed in fact that he takes some time for a quick look back on the season with The Hollywood Reporter, even as the clock literally ticks down from 4:30 in the afternoon to 5 p.m. sharp — the moment he's set to go live in front of hundreds of audience members and millions at home.

"This season really clearly illustrates that as a game, players are being rewarded for playing, and hurt feelings are being thrown aside in favor of recognizing great risky gameplay. It also shows how one wrong decision is all it takes to blow your game; you have to be perfect to win Survivor," Probst tells THR about the takeaway from Game Changers and what it means for Survivor moving forward. "It's a tall order. It's why it's so difficult to do, and it's why people continue to come back and play again. If you ask them, they'll often say: 'I'm haunted by one move. I had an opportunity.'" 

Probst is joined backstage by exec producer Mark Burnett, the man who brought Survivor into existence. For his part, Burnett is in the thick of the most action-packed week of his career: the two-part season finale of The Voice earlier in the week, Thursday night's premiere of Burnett's new Fox game show Beat Shazam hosted by Jamie Foxx and Shark Tank on Friday. Oh, and the Survivor finale, of course.

"I talked with my wife Roma [Downey] a week ago," says Burnett, "and I decided I'm going to enjoy every single day for what it is. So tonight, it's great to be with the pros landing the plane on the aircraft carrier. I'm a passenger. I'm not nervous. With the Shazam premiere? That's when I can be nervous."

Focusing on Survivor, Burnett looks at the state of the game and has his own views of what it takes to win — and if he's being honest, he's not sure he could pull it off. 

"In the earlier seasons, I used to think I'd be okay at this. I won't be good at the social game. I speak my mind too quick for these sorts of things. But as I look now at the evolution of Survivor, here in Season 34? I wouldn't have a chance," he says with a big laugh. "It's become like playing multi-level chess. You've really got to think. It's like House of Cards meets Billions in terms of thinking five moves ahead — if I do this, that's going to happen."

For her part, Game Changers champion Sarah Lacina did exactly that on her way toward victory, albeit without the catchy House of Cards theme blaring in the background. Really, Breaking Bad might be the better television analogy, as Sarah went from hero to villain over the course of her two-season arc. She wielded the positive police officer reputation she earned during her first season, Survivor: Cagayan, as a weapon against her opponents, implementing a "cop-turned-criminal" strategy. 

Sarah anticipated her fellow castaways' moves, took advantage of their vulnerabilities, and walked away with the million dollar prize in a 7-3-0 vote against runner-up Brad Culpepper and third place finisher Troyzan Robertson. It was a dominant performance, one that was similar to the way Sarah's fellow cop and former adversary Tony Vlachos won their first season — better, even, according to one of the players who voted for Sarah to win.

"Sarah may have played the Tony game a little better, because she was able to be the little sister, the older sister, the best friend," says Aubry Bracco, the season's eternally quotable fifth-place finisher. "She was able to have so many relationships. As ruthless as she could be, she really had this wholesome vibe."

What's more, Sarah managed to win one of the single most volatile seasons in Survivor history. In the spirit of the season's theme and name, Game Changers repeatedly changed the game on its contestants, between new hidden advantages and tribal councils that forced two tribes to vote a single person out. Indeed, the final tribal council of the season was perhaps the biggest and most successful alteration to the game. In the past, finalists would face questions from one jury member after another, one at a time. This season, Survivor implemented an open forum format that allowed finalists and jurors to trade barbs back and forth.

"What went into it was with Survivor, or with any format, you have to stay a little bit ahead of where it is, otherwise you risk becoming stale," Probst says of the new jury platform. "And I just knew that even as an audience member, over the last few seasons I would be sitting at Final Tribal going, 'Oh my God, this is boring.' And it didn't seem right. It just didn't feel right. And what seemed to make sense was we have upped our casting over the last several years. We have great storytellers who are compelling people. Let's let them do their own tribal council. Instead of asking one question, you be me, and ask whatever you want. We'll divide it into outwit, outplay and outlast for simple classifications, and the result is fantastic. Every jury member as it was happening was saying, 'Oh my God, I love this.'"

"But you never make quick decisions," he's quick to add. "Mark and I always talk through things and think, 'I wonder if we should consider this.' And then at a certain point you go, 'Let's pull the trigger.'"

For his part, Burnett doesn't take much credit for Survivor's current creative state, and instead tips his hat to Probst, who serves as executive producer and showrunner in addition to his responsibilities as host. "I always try to hire people better than me," he says. "And I think Jeff may be the first star to actually be the showrunner as well — not just named producer, but actually running the show, while still being the star." Burnett remembers some initial reservations from CBS when first proposing the evolution of Probst's role, but he argued, "This is the right move for the health of the show.

"And look what happened when Jeff took over as showrunner," he continues. "The show took off even more. Here we are at the 33rd live finale, at the 34th season finale, and numbers are up. And as other shows have tapered off, this show is on par with every single show unscripted — and I don't think there's one scripted network show beating Survivor." 

Burnett points at a situation like Zeke Smith being outed as transgender by Jeff Varner, and sees it as an example of Survivor's enduring cultural resonance. 

"Nothing was left to chance, or let's just roll the dice, see what happens," he says. "It was very thought through from the point of view of protecting Zeke at all costs, and letting it be what it was and never a question that we're going to betray our audience by not showing you something that important. On the other hand, factoring in the emotion of Zeke and how it affects his life... Jeff amazingly sensed it [at that tribal council], because it couldn't have been a more serious issue. And it just shows you the game Survivor is at the forefront of culture and what's really going on."

Seventeen years have passed since Burnett and Probst set sail for Pulau Tiga, the site of the very first season of Survivor. Much has changed since a very naked Richard Hatch pioneered the way the game would be played moving forward, since the days of Sue Hawk's snakes and rats and the reign of rowdy Rudy Boesch, whose old school one-liners wouldn't exactly fly today. 

"I can still remember being with Mark in Borneo, walking through the beaches as he would continue to tell me what the show was every day, like it was the first time I was hearing it," says Probst. "He was like, 'So remember, this is a journey that people have never gone on before. It's going to test them in ways people don't get to be tested, and as a result, they're going to have these enormous highs and crashing lows, and all we're going to do is observe it and watch it, and it has this cool game element. You've got to vote people out and the last one wins, so to speak.'" 

In that regard, Probst doesn't think those foundational aspects of Survivor have changed. "It's what goes through my mind, 34 seasons in," he says. "It's still basically the same show. You take people from different walks of life — Culpepper, Aubry, whoever — and you shove them in this intense conflict and force them to live together and build a world where they don't have the same goal. That's why it's not a traditional society. We actually want to get rid of each other, and how do we do it in a way that we can still live and survive and win? And I think that format is why you see something like Zeke in the Zeke episode happen, because the people keep the show culturally relevant. Whoever you put on the show — their world, their lives... that's what the show's about."

Survivor returns for Season 35 in the fall. Read our preview of Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers, and follow for continuing coverage of the series.