Jeff Probst dishes about CBS' upcoming 'Survivor: China' season
By Christopher Rocchio, 09/13/2007
Survivor's upcoming fifteenth season is going where no major American television show has filmed before.
"What does China bring? Culture. We've been in the South Pacific for quite a while and in all areas, China was exciting from a creative point of view," Survivor: China host Jeff Probst told reporters during a Wednesday conference call.
"It gave us different things to draw on, different inspirations in terms of challenges, and it gave us a different visual pallet to work with, different colors. This culture that dates back 5,000 years gives you so much to drawn from, we really had a fresh season. Survivor looks different again... For several seasons in a row its visually looked somewhat the same: palm trees and coconuts. We have bamboo and temples this time. I think you'll feel the difference."
One of those differences is that Survivor: China will not feature an Exile Island concept. Instead, the tribe that wins each Reward Challenge will be allowed to "kidnap" a member of the losing tribe. The kidnapped tribe member will remain with the other tribe until the next Immunity Challenge, at which time they will re-join their original tribe.
"I think it worked better. The problem we had with Exile Island -- and not to say it won't come back, but if it does, we will hopefully do it in a different form -- but the problem with Exile Island is you only have one person on the island, and it's sort of basic reality, basic storytelling," said Probst. "We struggled with finding ways to make Exile work, where we were just having a guy sort of talk to himself when he's very much aware we're there with the camera. So we set-up Exile and we have to go to it, but we never really could pay it off."
Probst added producers decided to try the "kidnapping" concept instead, and said it "really worked."
"It takes one person from one group and forces them into another, and they're carrying with them some very valuable information, so it's even more complicated," he explained. "To complicate it further nobody knows what the information is because it's sort of in the form of a secret. That works better because you get a chance to spy or be spied on. Maybe the person who goes over gives away too much information, maybe they give away bad information, maybe the tribe that they visit puts on a show to let them think they're not getting along... There's just a lot more opportunities for deception."
The "kidnapped" concept also works well with another new aspect of Survivor: China, as each castaway was also given a copy of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," which will serve as "tribe motivation and assistance throughout the game," according to CBS.
"A lot of stuff referenced in 'The Art of War' is spying and reading your opponent," said Probst. "And you're always trying to do several things simultaneously. You want to develop strong tribes that want to beat each other, and you want to find holes in their alliances that are vulnerable so if you do a switch or a merge they might slip."
Probst said he was "surprised" at how well "The Art of War" -- which was written more than 2,600-years-ago -- reflects the type of game that Survivor really is.
"We looked at 'The Art of War' and we thought, 'This is really Survivor,'" he added. "It's strategy, whether you're in an actual war or just playing a game of strategy, the philosophy is pretty similar. You need to know your opponent and you need to know yourself -- and if you don't know yourself, you don't know you're opponent, and you're never going to win. If you want to be a leader, you need to first be liked, and if you're not liked, you're team will never follow you. It's these basic concepts, and we thought we'll give it to them and then we'll see what happens."
While Probst will make references to "The Art of War" at challenges and its themes will also be included in some Tree Mail messages, the Survivor host said some of the castaways did actually used it in their strategy.
"This is one of those ideas that could sound a little corny or maybe a little forced, but I really believe it was a solid idea," he said. "There's a lot of basic stuff about how to get along with people and how to win at a game like this, so yeah, it got used."
According to Probst some of the castaways even inadvertently used "The Art of War" in their game play, such as Jean-Robert Bellande, a 36-year-old professional poker player from Las Vegas, NV.
"He actually came in with a pretty interesting strategy, which was, 'I'm going to come in and not be liked and I want people to not like me and then I'm going to become likable,'" explained Probst. "His reasoning was, psychologically, if you meet someone and the first time you meet them you don't like them -- but then as you get to know them, you do like them -- you end up liking them more than you would have if you liked them initially. That was his philosophy... That kind of strategy, while not exactly out of 'The Art of War,' it's part of it."
However, Bellande's initial strategy apparently didn't work out very well.
"[Bellande] didn't have a clue about Survivor but was so certain that the fact that he's a professional poker player would take care of itself," said Probst. "That dude had a quick learning curve... he started realizing, 'Okay, I don't know what the hell is going on out here because people are talking behind my back and I don't know what they're saying.' Hello Jean-Robert! You should have watched a couple of episodes, you numbskull."
Survivor: China will begin with the castaways leaving the bustle of downtown Shanghai and traveling to HuangPu Mountain's Mi Tuo Temple. Once there, they will participate in a Buddhist ceremony and be instructed to "leave all of their worldly possessions behind."
"We send them on this big journey," said Probst. "They go from Shanghi -- ultra-modern city of the world -- and then they go backwards: from a high-speed train to a truck and then they end-up in rural China where we're going to do the show at this Buddhist monastery."
After leaving the monastary, the castaways will be transported to Zhelin Lake, an enormous man-made reservoir lake in China's Jiangxi Province, and become "marooned with the clothes on their back at two separate islands."
"It's beautiful," said Probst in describing Survivor: China's setting. "It's sort of like Palau, when you're in the helicopter, it's just dotted with islands everywhere, and it's extremely rural."
However as Survivor fans should know, the show's picturesque settings can also wield cruelty and wreak havoc on castaways.
"In the very beginning it's hard. It rained a lot and it was very muddy. I think maybe in the second episode one tribe comes back to their camp and its flooded out," said Probst. "Those kind of things are so demoralizing... It got off to a tough start... The difficulty was the heat and the rain initially. It was blistering hot... There was that, and the fishing was difficult, because these waters have to be fished a certain way and that does come into play. At a certain point there's a [Reward Challenge] that lets a family come in and show you how to fish."
Despite the fact that fishing the Zhelin Lake is a complicated endeavor, Probst said Survivor: China castaways will still have the opportunity to win fishing gear.
"That's always a staple, winning fishing gear. Palau had so many fish, Pearl Islands had so many fish. This isn't the same," he said. "It's a different kind of fishing, so that was part of the struggle."
Due to a lack of native food sources (coconuts, shellfish, the occasional wild boar, etc.) that most previous Survivor locations have featured, each Survivor: China tribe was supplied with bags of rice.
"They wouldn't have made it without rice. No chance," he said. "We gave them rice, and then the first tribe gets the chance to win fire and the second tribe gets fire after Tribal Council because there's just no way without it. The difficulty is rice is not enough."
In addition to learning how to fish the waters so the castaways have something to eat their rice with, Probst said other Survivor: China Reward Challenges allowed the cast to experience some of the cultural elements that the show's location has to offer.
"Viewers will get a chance to see things like the Great Wall; the Shaolin Temple where king fu was born; you'll go to this 1,000-year-old village," said Probst, making Survivor sound more like The Amazing Race. "In addition to this fun show and adventure, you're also going to get a little insight into the culture of China."
Survivor: China's cast will also give viewers insight into a few minor American celebrities, such as Bellande.
"It's actually a bit of coincidence," explained Probst. "We didn't say, 'Let's go out and get some people who are known.' Because in the last few seasons -- really since Cook Islands -- we started looking for people as much as we do take applications... At times you might see people, and think, 'Hmm. They might actually be a good contestant on our show."
Probst added that casting approach applied to Bellande, who "probably would not have applied" for the show but once approached by producers, his "ego" wouldn't let him say no and he became a "natural." Another example is Ashley Massaro, a 28-year-old from East Northport, NY, who is known to wrestling fans as one of the WWE's "divas."
"Certainly it's a platform for her, but for us, we knew she was a really good character when we met her," said Probst. "She's crazy, just crazy. She's altered her body in this way that's hard not to notice her and she's got a wrestler's mentality when it comes to challenges. She's very physical. She said, 'I make my living throwing people around. I love this idea.'"
Massaro may have fallen in-love with the Survivor concept, however Leslie Nease, a 38-year-old Christian radio talk show host from Tega Cay, SC, apparently had a problem before the competitions even began.
"A Christian, radio talk-show host... That's a slam dunk," said Probst. "That plays out in the first four minutes of episode one, when she's forced to go inside a Buddhist temple and she's a Christian talk-show radio host."
Survivor: China will also include its first-ever Under-21 castaway -- Michael "Frosti" Zernow, a 20-year-old parkour athlete/student from Chicago for whom the producers decided to waive the show's usual age requirement.
Zernov grew-up watching Survivor -- a fact that also applies to Todd Herzog, a 22-year-old flight attendant from Pleasant Grove, UT.
"He's one of the biggest fans ever and the first day he said something like that to me, 'Jeff, I've been watching this show since I was 16 and I've been waiting until I can apply,'" said Probst of Herzog. "And I thought, 'My God! Hold old am I?'... He did know the game and it's because he's been watching since he was a kid. In his case, it pays off... He had a game plan of how an alliance best works and how to work people."
Survivor: China is the first Survivor edition to feature 16 castaways since Survivor: Panama in Spring 2006, and in addition, six of the last seven installments have had at least 18 castaways. While Probst said 18 to 20 tribe members has "a lot of pros" in case somebody "quit or got sick," he described such a large cast as being "really hard to get to know."
"From a storytelling point of view," explained Probst, "we always kind of felt like it's a struggle with 20 people. Sixteen is difficult. We went back to Season 1 in this way: 16 people, every three days is an episode. Because what had happened is as we got to 20 people, we had to get rid of more people, we needed an extra episode, we would do a one-day episode. We would actually shoot an entire episode with a challenge and a Tribal in one day, and that's really tough to tell the story. So we went back to our old schedule... It was really manageable and nice, so I think 16 people is something we might stick with for a little while."
As he's done in previous seasons, Probst provided some brief thoughts about each of Survivor: China's16 castaways:
- Jean-Robert Bellande (36-year-old professional poker player from Las Vegas, NV who is originally from Long Island, NY)
"Extremely confident, to the point of cocky arrogance. Part of that is his plan, part of that's his natural personality. In terms of somebody you want to have on a show, he's gold."
"Physically the biggest guy we've ever had on the show and surprisingly, one of the most agile. I thought that James might be a guy who couldn't really stretch or move -- he was just all muscle -- but you see in the very first challenge, he goes up against [Michael 'Frosti' Zernov], this young, hardcore kid, and they go head-to-head, and Frosti's got nothing on James. James is kind of like a gentle giant in that he's pretty quiet unless you live him up, and then you have no filter. He will say whatever he's thinking at whatever volume he wants to say it. That was interesting and a bit of a liability for him out there."
- Dave Cruser (37-year-old former model and bartender from Simi Valley, CA)
"Dave Cruser is nuts. Dave works to the point of exhaustion, then loses his mind, and continues to try and contribute. He's just zany enough to be entertaining and annoying if you live with him. But at the heart of Dave is a big heart. The guy works so hard from the second he gets out there. He really wants to build something. He really wants to have a group of people. But he's a guy that is going to need to study 'The Art of War' early if he's going to stay long."
- Jaime Dugan (22-year-old student from Columbia, SC who is originally from Ft. Lauderdale, FL)
"An interesting combination of sorority girl and honor student. She's very pretty and she's from South Carolina, and at first glance you kind of get this, 'Oh, I'm just a little sorority girl.' But she's got a pretty good head on her shoulders, especially when it comes to dealing with people and the strategy of dealing with people. Jaime factors into the strategy of her tribe quite a bit."
- Todd Herzog (22-year-old flight attendant from Pleasant Grove, UT)
"He's very young. He's never missed an episode of Survivor. He's studied it from when he was a kid, and I think of all the people on the show this season, probably Todd knew Survivor the best. Todd knows what to expect. He knows the odds of it being a merge or a loved ones' visit or an auction. He can tell you based on what day it is what we're probably doing back at base camp. It's kind of scary how much he knew about the show. But he's a great storyteller -- and like Jean-Robert -- Todd is somebody you go to all the time because he always gives you something good."
- Erik Huffman (26-year-old musician from Nashville, TN who is originally from Greenville, SC)
"He's a little bit like [Survivor: Africa winner Ethan Zohn] in that Eric is a very quiet, polite kid. He's quite a talented musician. But out in Survivor, he was definitely a follower for most of it. He just wanted to get along -- and I was a little suspect that there was maybe something else going on -- but his game was from the beginning, 'I'm a nice guy, and that's how I'm going to play it, and let's see how it does me.'"
- Amanda Kimmel (23-year-old hiking guide and Miss Montana USA 2005 from Los Angeles, CA who is originally from Kalispell, MT)
"Amanda is a former Miss Montana. She's beautiful, great physical body in terms of an athlete. She's very strong and can pull her own weight at camp and at challenges. She knows the game very well and totally gets how Survivor is played. She's playing to win. Amanda's somebody you look at and might think, 'Ah, she's a little like [Survivor: All-Stars winner Amber Brkich]. I'll keep her around until I don't need her anymore. Good luck.'"
- Peih-Gee Law (29-year-old jeweler from Marina Del Rey, CA who was born in Hong Kong)
"Peih-Gee has a very strong opinion about everything, and that is going to be her biggest obstacle to get over. She can not not tell you what she thinks, and often it's negative, and often it's delivered in a negative way. What Peih-Gee has going for her is will power. She will not go away. You're going to have to really want to get rid of her to get rid of her. She'll stay on your heels like a puppy."
- Sherea Lloyd (26-year-old elementary school teacher from Atlanta, GA who is originally from Pontiac, MI)
"Sherea is a fish out of water. She's a fourth-grade school teacher who has no business being on Survivor. Completely out of her element. Left with only the cloths on her back, she quickly finds herself in her braw and her underwear and is not that comfortable. Then amazingly -- very quickly -- she begins to sort of embrace it. Sherea -- much like Peih-Gee -- has a strong point of view, and she loves to talk about it. She loves to mix it up. She loves to go head-to-head with you about anything. It makes good television."
- Denise Martin (40-year-old school lunch lady from Douglas, MA who is originally from Revere, MA)
"Denise is known as 'The Lunch Lady," and she's one of the most endearing people we've had on the show in a long time. She has an unmistakable haircut -- a mullet -- and it's such a fascinating hairstyle you can't help but ask her about it. When we asked her about it, her answer was so charming. She said, 'I work with food, so I have a need to keep my hair short to keep it out of the food. But I'm also a woman, and I'm a wife, and I want to be sexy for my husband, so I want some length in the back.' There you go. You here her say that, and it pretty much sums up Denise: What you see, is absolutely what you will get."
- Ashley Massaro (28-year-old WWE professional wrestler from East Northport, NY)
"Ashley has one of the most unique looks of anyone we've ever had on the show. She's altered her body in many ways -- from piercing to tattoos to breast implants -- and on top of it all she's very physically fit. I mean she makes her living throwing people around. Ashley's strength is going to be that she's a strong woman, and I think her liability is that she's one of the "divas" of the WWE, and that "diva" part of her is going to have to go."
"Chicken Morris is one of a kind. He's a chicken farmer... Chicken's the oldest guy out there. That's the toughest thing for Chicken the first few days, figuring out the balance between being Chicken -- a guy who knows how to build a shelter -- and being this guy that's playing that needs to blend in with all these young people who only think they know how to build a shelter. That's his big struggle. This is a guy who's lived on his own for so long and does things his own damn way, 'This is how we do 'em and this is how it works.' Well that doesn't work on Survivor, so Chicken found himself in the situation of either stick to my roots and be the first one gone or adapt and learn how to deal with these younger people."
- Leslie Nease (38-year-old Christian radio talk show host from Tega Cay, SC)
"Leslie is a really nice woman. She's a mother. She's very accomplished, she's done a lot in her life. Her current occupation is she hosts a Christian talk show. For her I think religion will play a part. Early on she's forced to go to a Buddhist temple -- which was not a worshipping ceremony -- but nonetheless, it has a worship element to it. That was difficult for her, and right away she's exposed as somebody who has a strong faith. The question is, will people manipulate her and her faith? Will she use her faith to manipulate others? Where is her line? Will she cross it to win $1 million?"
- Aaron Reisberger (32-year-old surfing instructor and bartender from Venice, CA who is originally from Belmont County, OH)
"I describe Aaron as kind of cold and steely. Aaron told us when we first met him, 'When I bartend, I can read people so fast that I know what to say to them and how to treat them to get the maximum tip.' For me, I thought if he's telling the truth, he's going to do very well, because that's the essence of Survivor: reading people and knowing what makes them tick and how to get to them so you can give them what they want. I think Aaron is very good at knowing what people need, and how to give it to them. That will keep a lot of people on his side. I also think Aaron is probably used to leading, and that will either really work well for him or kill him. But he's not a passive guy."
- Courtney Yates (26-year-old waitress from New York, NY who is originally from Boston, MA)
"If James is the biggest person, Courtney's the smallest person we've ever had. She couldn't weigh 100 pounds, but she passed our physical test and was cleared by the doctors. She is one of the wittiest and negative people we've ever had on the show, and I really got a kick out of Courtney. I enjoyed her sarcasm, her extremely dry wit. She always had a comment about what was going on and it was almost always funny and simultaneously insightful. Her liability is going to be her size. Can she contribute anything worth keeping her around, or does she try to last long enough to where her size and liability become an asset because nobody thinks she can win so they keep her around? She's in a really interesting position on how to play the game. If I were her I'd just try to bury myself somewhere in the middle and hope I can make it so late that the combination of my personality and lack of physical ability will make me somebody you want to keep around. For me, Courtney was a delight because of her caustic personality."
- Michael "Frosti" Zernow (20-year-old parkour athlete/student from Chicago, IL who is originally from Traverse City, MI)
"Frosti's the youngest kid we've ever had on the show. He does this sport called parkour, and it's sort of like what they did in the latest James Bond movie where they jump over signs and jump up onto railings and pull themselves up. He's very physically gifted, and when we saw his tape, we thought, 'Oh my God this guy is great for challenges, for what he might do to some of the challenges.' In the very first challenge, he goes up against James and there's this huge wall and it was built with a rope that you're supposed to climb up the wall and pull yourself over. We thought, 'Okay, Frosti might skip the rope. It's a long jump, but he might go for it with his adrenaline.' Sure enough, he leaps off of a platform at this wall and pulls himself up. Right behind him is James, this massive guy who does the same thing. I thought, 'Oh my God, we have some athletes this season.' Between Frosti, James, Aaron, Amanda and Ashley, we've got some pretty physically fit people."