Jeff Probst dishes about CBS' upcoming 'Survivor: Fiji' season
By Christopher Rocchio, 02/01/2007
If you think you know what to expect on the upcoming season of Survivor, host Jeff Probst says think again.
"You see Survivor for 14 seasons and you get used to seeing people starving, ribs showing and tempers flaring," said Probst. "But if you ever watch a moment and actually imagine it is you out there... you get reminded Survivor is real. Even though we've seen it 14 seasons now, it's no less real."
Probst spoke to the media on Wednesday afternoon about Survivor: Fiji, the fourteenth installment of the long-running CBS reality series that is scheduled to premiere next week on Thursday, February 8 at 8PM ET/PT.
One of Survivor: Fiji's biggest new twists involves giving the season's two tribes vastly different "all or nothing" living conditions -- a twist that, at first glance, seems remarkably similar to the twist that Survivor producer Mark Burnett used on his currently airing The Apprentice: Los AngelesNBC reality series. However while the twists may seem similar on the surface, Probst said that not only was Burnett's Survivor team not aware that The Apprentice was utlizing a similar idea, but the two twists play out quite differently.
"Mark Burnett runs his shows very independently. I can tell you that this was an idea born organically from us," said Probst. "We were a little surprised to find The Apprentice was doing it. But especially after watching the first episode [of The Apprentice: Los Angeles], it's a very different world and a very different method to execute the same idea."
According to Probst, Survivor: Fiji will begin with the season's 19 contestants assembling on a beach and receiving no additional information. Later, Probst flies over in a sea plane and drops a package that contains the blueprints for building a "massive shelter," as well as a map to find tools and different amenities. After all 19 castaways have built their new home, Probst informs them that they're being divided into tribes and will square-off in a winner-take-all challenge in which the victors will receive the "beautiful place" they all just built.
The losing tribe is then sent to a separate camp, with only a pot and machete, while the winners get "the biggest housewarming gift ever given" on Survivor, which includes cutlery, a hammock, couch and sewing machine. According to Probst, the situation quickly gives one tribe "a sense of entitlement" and sets the other up as a "clear underdog."
"Cut from the winning tribe, where one member says, 'How bad is it that we have more food here than some of the people watching at home have in their refrigerator,'" said Probst. "Then cut to the other tribe, where they are on their hands and knees literally licking leaves to get drops of water. It's the hardest I've ever seen a group hit probably since Africa."
Probst also noted that although the winning tribe quickly felt "entitled" to their posh living quarters, those feelings were based on their own assumptions, not anything he or the show's staff told them. "There's nothing to say that has the winning shelter will be entitled to it forever... there's nothing to say that just because you won it we won't take it," Probst explained.
According to Probst, another Fiji similarity to Survivor: Africa deals with fairness. Survivor's third season was the first time contestants switched tribes, causing members of the cast to become "livid" that they had to leave behind alliances and surroundings they were familiar with. Now, he said, contestants switch tribes several times during a season and it is no longer viewed as unfair.
"You'll hear many times in the first two episodes, 'This doesn't feel like Survivor. It's too easy. I thought it would be more difficult,'" Probst said, alluding to the reactions of the game's well-to-do tribe. "But Survivor is about social interaction and this fulfills that mantra. We've now got a new dynamic after 14 seasons, and fortunately we've found something that worked where we created adversaries so fast. It's hard to catch-up to a team with this big of a lead, and it builds animosity."
That animosity only grows, according to Probst, as the contestants will have to deal with the strategical aspect of having two hidden Immunity Idols rather than one, and they're not on Exile Island like in seasons past -- they're located somewhere in the tribes' camps.
"It's an interesting dilemma," said Probst, as the returning Exile Island outcasts will have to decide whether to share the new clues they obtain during their exile or keep the information to themselves. "Subsequent clues on Exile Island tell them where to look, and they slowly realize there's one on our beach and one on their beach. It became a really big game of cat and mouse. How do you look for an Immunity Idol at your camp when you're living with other people?"
According to Probst, Exile Island itself isn't different, unless you take into account the "thousands of deadly sea snakes" located there. "You see that play out in the second episode when there's a run-in with a snake," said Probst. "It's very clear they do exist and are a problem." If dealing with venomous snakes and two Immunity Idols weren't difficult enough, the way those Immunity Idols are played has also changed. Suffice it to say someone like Survivor: Cook Islands winner Yul Kwon won't be holding onto it for an entire season.
"Now, the Immunity Idol must be played after the tribe has voted [at Tribal Council] but before I read the vote. So they have to go to Tribal Council, listen to what's said there, and take all of the information from living with their tribe to make a gut call [on if to play the idol or not]," explained Probst. "I can tell you, the Immunity Idol gets played more than once this season."
One Survivor: Fiji Tribal Council detail that Probst is still "keeping secret" is whether, like last season's Cook Islands' edition, Fiji will feature three final Tribal Council finalists. However based on Probst's subsequent comments about the previous season's change, it seems pretty clear that -- similar to how the Exile Island concept now seems to have become a standard part of the show's format -- viewers should expect the new Final 3 format to return.
"I think having a final three is a great idea. It makes it more difficult for one person to control the game and bring with them the least likeable person and give us a final tribal council that has no drama," said Probst. "With three people, we give ourselves one more chance to have somebody [in the finals] the audience roots for. Simply from a structure point of view, I don't know why we would ever go back to two finalists."
One twist Survivor: Fiji didn't anticipate was having only 19 cast members instead of 20 -- a scenario that became reality only about eight hours before filming started. Probst said a woman contestant tabbed for Fiji "had a lot of anxiety, to the point where it escalated to a panic attack." As the start of the game drew closer, she grew increasingly anxious, and once doctors, a psychiatrist and an executive producer were brought over, it became clear trying to talk her into staying wouldn't work. "[She was] really having a hard time," Probst explained.
"We didn't have any alternates. Sometimes we bring alternates if we think somebody is iffy, but we didn't think we had anybody on the fence this season," said Probst. "It meant instead of two tribes of 10 we had two tribes of nine and one extra person, so we had to figure out what to do with that person. It worked out just fine."
As if all those twists don't complicate winning the $1 million prize for the cast, Survivor: Fiji will also feature the return of the car challenge -- or "car curse" as it's more infamously known. After General Motors stopped sponsoring the car challenge before last season, Probst said Ford Motor Company stepped in to bring it back this season.
"The car challenge is back and the question of the car curse is back too," said Probst. "The car challenge plays an instrumental role in this season... a huge role. I feel bad that GM was a sponsor all those years, and Ford comes in and in the first season [of their sponsorship] they get a lot of bang for their buck."
"That's one of those where we stepped too far to the left and we broke our own rules of if you're voted out, how on earth is it fair for you to come back, and somebody else has to go home as a result," said Probst. "I argued [against the Outcast idea] until I had no voice. Then I said okay, whatever [Burnett] says is the final word and I'll go execute as best I can. But there's no doubt among our crew that I never thought that idea was good."
Probst said he also felt Survivor: Cook Islands shouldn't have "bailed early" from its racial division of tribes. However he said the cast is still diverse on Survivor: Fiji.
"[Burnett] was adamant that we not... just go back to casting as we normally do," said Probst. "We didn't want to go back to 18 white people and two others. That's not representative of this country and it's not interesting. But we also don't want to paint ourselves in a box and have equal numbers of each ethnicity from now on."
So, similar to last season's Survivor edition, "active casting" was used, with the show's casting directors expanding their contestant search far beyond those who applied for the show. "The positive to this is that we found people who wouldn't normally apply to Survivor, which means they aren't someone who probably watches the show and dreams of doing it," said Probst. "They come out to the island and they're not so well versed [in the game]. So they just play it with a little more individuality, and it gives you different moments."
One result of expanded casting search is Andria "Dre" Herd, a 25-year-old cheerleading coach from Wilmington, NC, who was a homeless street performer while growing up. Survivor: Fiji found him through the suggestion of a friend of a casting associate. "[Dre] is honest. He's just so real," said Probst. "And that could hurt him immensely in this game because he hasn't figured out how to lie and cheat with a lot of finesse."
Another product of "active casting" was Yau-Man Chan, a 54-year-old computer engineer who currently resides in Martinez, CA, who was found through the Table Tennis Association's website. Chan was born in Hong Kong and raised in Borneo, Malaysia, which is where Survivor's first season was filmed. "He's really at home [in Fiji]," said Probst. "He can open a coconut quickly and efficiently. I think people will adore him."
Probst also discussed his feelings on Kenward "Boo" Bernis, a 34-year-old construction worker from Lafayette, LA, who was described as a "bumbling contradiction." "He's in good shape and has an athletic background, but he's the most injury-prone Survivor I've ever seen in 14 seasons. In the course of an hour, it's perfectly normal for him to have three injuries," said Probst. "He's so athletically gifted, but keep the machete out of his hands."
Bernis contrasts well with Michelle Yi, a 23-year-old Cincinnati, OH student that Probst described as "feisty, deceptive... [and] a bit more of a player than people think."
"She's responsible for something that hasn't happened since Survivor: Africa in terms of a moment out on the beach... she has a huge impact on her tribe right away and it's something that's rarely seen on Survivor," said Probst. "I don't think it's happened other than two times on our show, where someone has achieved this task."
Probst also offered a cryptic comment about a late-game Survivor: Fiji "big moment" that he described as encapsulating what the entire series is all about.
"There is one thing that happens late in the game... a big ethical decision that has to be made that I think people will care about. By the time it happens, I think you'll be vested enough in the people involved that you'll care. It's the quintessential question of Survivor -- where do ethics begin and end, where does the game begin and end -- and it poses that question. What is your worth in this game and in your life, and is there a difference?"