'Survivor's' Jeff Probst on the New Finale Format, Crazy Tribal Councils and Why It's Still Anyone's Game (Q&A)

One of the remaining four castaways -- Kass McQuillen, Spencer Bledsoe, Tony Vlachos and Woo Hwang -- will be crowned the $1 million winner on Wednesday night.
Jeff Probst

It's down to the final four on Survivor: Cagayan.

A group of 18 castaways -- who started out the season as three tribes of brains vs. beauty vs. brawn -- has been whittled down to attorney "Chaos" Kass McQuillen (brain), student Spencer Bledsoe (brain), police officer Tony "Spy Shack" Vlachos (brawn) and martial arts instructor Woo Hwang.

The winner of the $1 million prize will be revealed in a live finale airing Wednesday night from 8 to 11 p.m. on CBS.

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Ahead of the big reveal, host Jeff Probst talked to The Hollywood Reporter about this season's crazy tribal councils, the new and improved strategy of the players as a whole and why all four remaining castaways each have a legitimate shot at winning.

In your opinion, how does this season compare to seasons past?

I think the last four seasons are the very best we've ever done in the history of our show, or pretty close. They're probably all top 10. "Blood vs. Water" changed the entire show in terms of bringing the loved ones on, but with brawn vs. brains vs. beauty, not only was there a fresh cast of people who just delivered week after week, you also stumbled into yet another element of our show -- if you define it clearly, you divide the people in the beginning, and it's easier for the audience to identify [them]. You say, "OK, Morgan says she's beautiful, and she lives her life that way. Kass never lost a case. Tony is a cop." While it's easy to make fun of someone like Morgan, she is very honest. She admits, "Yes, this is how I get through life, and this is why doors open for me and why I'm on the show. If you had to choose between being someone hot like me and someone ugly, why wouldn't you choose hot every time?" That was a great [tribal council] speech and showed how she really feels.

What did you make of Morgan's comments?

She doesn't see anything wrong with it. She thinks, "Maybe it's you or your issue about your own stuff. But I am very happy with how I look." And that's why I could ask her straight out, "Are you used to this?" And she said, "Of course, what do you think?" The difference between Morgan and someone like Parvati [Shallow, a former winner who recaps the show for THR] is that Parvati knows it but has enough life experience to use her looks and educate herself on knowing how to get in the door of the pantry to get that butcher knife to stab you in the back.

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Speaking of tribal councils, this season has had some crazy ones. Were you surprised at anything that went down this season?

You never know what it's going to be, but it does seem like after the last four seasons, the game has shifted. And the shift is that the players we're putting on the show now, first and foremost, are players, and they are not going to let you get by if you are not willing to play. The feeling among everybody is that "you better show up, or we'll vote you out simply because you're not worthy of being here." I like that; it excites me. That's how they should play it; if you're not willing to play, do you deserve to be there longer than people willing to play? No.

They've also figured out how to use tribal council. In the beginning, people didn't know what to do. Halfway through, they became afraid of answering any questions because they were afraid of incriminating themselves. And then in the Boston Rob era, they began taking every question I asked and using it as a launching pad for what they wanted to say: "We don't need Jeff to ask us anything." Now I'm allowed to observe, and I don't have to worry about asking so many questions: "Tell me what you want to talk about."

What can you tell viewers about the finale?

There will be a change in the format. Instead of us looking at it as a two-hour episode and a one-hour reunion, it will be a three-hour live event. It will start live at CBS [in Studio City] on the tribal council stage. I'll welcome everybody and kind of lay out what's going to happen. It will be a fun, interactive night [incorporating] social media. We'll also show some behind-the-scenes footage we don't typically show, like what happens to somebody when they're voted out.

The idea is to make it more of an event; I'm there watching with [the viewers]. More and more, this show belongs to the audience. The ratings show that, not that our show is going up, but our show isn't going down. And [flat] is the new up, and that's loyalty [from the audience]. We believe our relationship with the audience [is important], and we never stopped paying attention to them. When you do that, you're gone.

With the new format, will the winner still be announced at the beginning of the third hour?

Yes. We'll go to a commercial break, and then I'll come back and take the pulse of what's going on.

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At this point, does Kass have any chance at winning? Or Tony? He's obviously the most strategic player but has betrayed many people.

I could make an argument for anyone to win.

I think Spencer has an easy argument: "I'm an underdog. I shouldn't still be here. Nothing ever went my way, but I never stopped playing. I was on the worst tribe in the history of Survivor, and I still made it to the end."

Tony could argue: "You're all over there [on the jury] because of me, but I found all the idols, and you know even some of the stuff I lied about. I lied about being a construction worker. But I played and played and played. While you were all sleeping, I found the idols, and I earned them. Give me the money."

Woo could say: "I'm not like Tony or Kass or even Spencer. I'm a young guy who spent my life studying martial. I played with kindness. I was involved in a lot of decisions, but I got where I am without hurting anybody."

For Kass: "Get rid of your emotions; vote with reason. I flipped this game more ways than a pancake in a diner. I flipped at will and kept things moving and dumped my alliance, and they still came back to me. I never lost a case, and I knew what I was doing from the get-go. Forget about my snarky grin -- I know it's annoying, I don't even know I'm doing it."

It comes down to who you're sitting next to more than ever this year. … And don't start your opening statement with an apology; no one wants to hear that.

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There are quite a few contestants this season that the audience loves to hate, especially Tony and Trish.

I think it's a fine line -- as long as you truly don't despite them as humans. Tony is not a bad guy; he's playing a very aggressive game. He's a cop, and the flip side of that story is that he's used to protecting people and keeping them safe. He's the father of one kid and has another one on the way. Same for Trish -- her upbringing was pretty rough. She's been through a lot, but she's still kicking. She's polarizing. But you could argue that Tony wouldn't be where he is without Trish. She kept him sane and made everybody feel like she was keeping him sane.

Survivor has been on the air for 28 seasons and was recently picked up for two more installments. When you look back on your first seasons, what pops out at you?

With all shows that are on for a long time, whether unscripted like us or scripted like CSI or NCIS, the thing I'm noticing is that the way the shows are telling the stories are undergoing a dramatic transformation. The audience can handle more information, and they can handle it more quickly. We're telling more complex storylines, certainly, than when Survivor started. We started out trying to be really clear. Now our shows are much more dense. I think that's really important, that when you have a show that's been on the air a while, that you're continuing to evolve it and not be afraid to abandon something that may have worked in the past to try something new.