/Jeff Probst on how Survivor scored in season 37

Jeff Probst on how Survivor scored in season 37

Those magnificent bastards have done it again. The question is, how? Let’s just call it out: There is no way Survivor should still be on the air. The game-changing reality program debuted in the summer of 2000 and transformed television in the wake of its staggering success (51.7 million people turned into watch snake Richard Hatch devour rat Kelly Wiglesworth for the million-dollar prize). But even the producers themselves figured the show would burn bright and then fade out after only last a few installments.

Fast forward 18 years later and here we are in the middle of Survivor’s 37th season. Not only that, but Survivor: David vs. Goliath is being hailed as one of the show’s best outings in years. A lot of that has to do with casting, as the current group is chock full of both heroes and villains with stories — and, yes, drama — to share. But the producers have also started experimenting with new ways to present those stories, showing a willingness to tweak their format and, in turn, make a show that began during the Clinton administration still feel fresh and vital.

Now that David vs. Goliath is past the merge and into the second half of the season, we spoke to host Jeff Probst to get his take on the longevity of the franchise, the art to casting celebrities, and what makes this latest installment so successful. (Read through both pages for the entire interview.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start big picture. What’s been your big takeaway from what we’ve seen so far this season?
JEFF PROBST: That’s a great way to ask it. The takeaway is that the tapestry of Survivor is everything, that you need all the little tiny ingredients, but the big foundational blocks are the format which we don’t mess with the group of people playing, which is as good as we’ve ever had. I mean these are some of the best 20 people we’ve ever assembled, and the theme in this case is really culturally relevant. I think they’re subliminal, unconscious thing happening about underdog versus favorite or have and have nots or whatever it is that we’re all going through right now. I think is a big part of it as well.

You’ve done some different things with your editing this season. We’ve seen you reveal someone’s hidden immunity idol first and then go back and show how he got it after. You’ve done more cross cutting between tribes or between people within a tribe rather than sticking with one scene and then going to another. You showed something in a “previously on” segment the other week that wasn’t even in the episode. Was there some sort of mandate to be a little more experimental or take some more risks in your presentation this season?
Yeah, it was definitely a conscious decision, and I love that you noticed and I really love that the audience is noticing. I hear a lot of people echoing what you said, which is they’re noticing a sense of humor and they’re noticing some fun in the editing. Like for instance, the reveal of the idol. Matt Van Wagenen has wanted to do that for years. And as we always do, we kind of talked it through, like, “Should we do it now or should we wait a little bit?” And this felt like the year to try I,t and it worked. And the idea behind all of it really is just to continue to evolve how we can tell the story.

So we always want to have a reason that we’re doing it. We never just go, I’d be really fun to just do the following. It’s almost always set up by what if in telling the story of the idol-find we make the audience work a little harder, or we give them a little more mystery, or what if when an alliance forms and they call themselves the rock star alliance, we give them a little on the guitar riff you hear. Some people will notice, some won’t. We’re not going to overdo it, but it’s just those little things that also make it fun for our producers and all of our editing teams that are working nonstop on the show.

I don’t even think it’s a risk. I think it’s a luxury that we get because we have one of these rarities where you have a show that actually has a relationship with the audience where they know us, we know them. I talk to them all the time on the street and I feel like there’s a give and take, like, yeah, we’ll watch, try something and we’ll definitely let you know if we don’t like it

The way television works is that if a show is lucky, it comes on the air and becomes a hit. And then if it’s even luckier it can — after that initial burst of excitement — stay on TV for a long time, but just kinda coast where people maybe are still watching it but not really talking about it as much. With that in mind, how satisfying is it that viewers can still be so excited about the show in its 37th season and you all can feel like, “Yes, we are doing new things. Yes, people are going to be energized by something we’re doing over 18 years after we started”?
Yeah. And I love how you asked that question because I felt like it came with love and appreciation and respect and that you have the same thing. I often say to you, “I don’t know how you do a new column for the 600th episode of a show, but you find a way.” You always find a slightly different sliver or angle or entry point. That’s what we’re doing, and I always have this crazy fantasy, which will never do, but that we could do a look inside how we really make the show, because I think the audience would have even more appreciation and more certainty that we do really care and the show is really legit. Because when we’re on location, we’re working on it all day, every day. It’s a constant management of, “Do we have the right interview? Did we make sure we get this? What was the coverage on this? Let’s tweak this challenge. Let’s make those knots a little more. Let’s do this.”

Whatever that thing is that we’re working on to get it to play just right. We never coast and, you know, we’re the same group of idiots out there that have been out there for the last decade-plus and we all still look at each other and go, “I still care a lot. You? Okay, let’s go do it again.” So yeah, when you come home and you put together the premiere, you cross your fingers and you go, “Man, I hope they like it. I really hope they like it.“

And sometimes you may not know. You’re out there as it’s happening, but so much of the show comes together in the editing bay as the stories are put together. So did you have a sense when you’re out there for David vs. Goliath that this was going to be a really well received season or have you stopped trying to guess in terms of matching up what you think it’s going to be and what it ends up on TV as?
Yeah, I’ve pretty much stopped trying to guess. We focus on just executing and producing and it starts with the people. I mean this is one of the best groups we’ve ever had. There are some obvious people that are going to stand out. Christian is going to stand out because he’s just so unique and peculiar and fun and heartwarming and an underdog and all these things you want and that we want to see in ourselves — potential and possibility. But there are also lots of people that come in that may not have that. But they’re really good. Like John the wrestler. I mean when you’re doing David vs. Goliath, you gotta have a guy that literally looks like he was carved from granite.

But it can’t just be that. It has to be a guy who’s compelling when you see him sitting against the boulder saying, “I’m trying to figure out who I am.” Here’s a guy willing to be so open to say, “Yeah, I do this and I’ve done that and you might know me if you follow wrestling, but I’m still trying to figure out why I’m on Earth.” Those are the kinds of stories that we’re endeavoring to tell, and I think in some way that might be the real secret sauce to all of this, which is that we made a change a few years ago about how we look at people in terms of telling their story. And when we’re going to reveal their stories, and trying to make sure that we do the interview about their family situation at a critical moment in the show that we’re certain will be in the show so that we’re certain we can get that story in.

That discovery doesn’t sound like much, but was a real turning point for us in terms of being able to tell these really rich personal stories, because we all have them. If you sat down with mostly anybody and talk, they’ll be a point in their life where you go, “Wow, this is a really interesting story.” The key is finding that story and then knowing when to put it into the show in a way that makes sense. And on Survivor, that means you have to connect it to something that you’re certain will be in the show. (Interview continues on next page.)

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