Jeff Probst dishes about 'Survivor: Micronesia -- Fans vs. Favorites'
By Christopher Rocchio, 01/30/2008
Survivor: Micronesia'screative hook was supposed to be its Fans vs. Favorites format -- but with two love affairs, a record number of blind-side vote-offs, multiple hidden Immunity Idols, conned returning castaways, a new biggest all-time Survivor blunder, and some of the most brutal weather ever, the Fans vs. Favorites angle may have to take a backseat to all the other action.
Survivor: Micronesia -- Fans vs. Favorites, which will premiere Thursday, February 7, at 8PM ET/PT, will feature a tribe of 10 new castaways who consider themselves big Survivor buffs competing (at least initially) against a tribe of 10 returning castaways considered "favorites" from the past several season.
"We referred to it as the big con," Probst explained to reporters during a Tuesday conference call. "We alluded to the fact that there would be 20 people on this season. So when we started talking to some of the Favorites, they figured there must be 20 Favorites going [and] it's an all-stars season. So we had 20 people on the hook thinking they were going, knowing all along we were only taking 10 and that the other 10 would be Fans. So that for us was important because we knew all these [Favorites] were talking on the phone to each other and trying to build alliances before the show even started. So we wanted to complicate it a little bit, and I think it worked."
Probst said some of the Favorites the show "wanted" but "just didn't have a spot for" were Survivor: Panama castaway Shane Powers and Survivor: Cook Islands winner Yul Kwon.
"When we looked at the balance of Favorites -- as much as we liked Yul and Shane -- we just didn't know who we would take out to put them in," Probst explained. "It was a feeding-frenzy of Favorites calling our casting director, pleading their case as to why they would make a good choice."
Probst added those former castaways who were part of the "big con" shouldn't feel slighted about not being selected.
"It wasn't that these [10 who were cast] were the 10 most-favorite, it was 10 favorites," he explained. "So I know there were some people who weren't selected and their feelings were hurt. It doesn't mean they weren't worthy of being on the season, it just means we picked 10 different people -- probably for reasons that have nothing to do with anything about [them]."
In addition, Probst also revealed that two former castaways the show wanted to compete as Favorites -- Survivor: China runner-up Courtney Yates and Survivor: Palau winner Tom Westman -- weren't interested in returning. Probst said he ran into Westman in New York and asked if he'd ever return to the show.
"I said, 'If we ever did another all-stars, would you do it?' He said, 'There's no chance Jeff. Look at how the game played for me. I came out as a hero. Everything went my way, I was the fireman who was the nice guy and won. All I would do is tarnish that image. I'm not going through it again,'" Probst recalled from his conversation with Westman before adding Yates, "didn't want to do it either."
According to Probst, Fans vs. Favorites was significantly different than his 2004 Survivor: All-Stars experience, which he's previously frankly described as "a pain-in-the ass" that "I personally didn't want to do" and "didn't enjoy."
"We did not have any of the attitude we had when we did the first All-Stars," he said of the Favorites. "We did that first All-Stars season, there was so much entitlement from some of these people who had been big rock stars because of being on the first Survivor. People like [Sue Hawk], [Richard Hatch] and those guys. It was tough; there was a lot of attitude. This group? They were great. They were fun. They enjoyed the chance to come back. We took a lot of time in picking 10 people we thought would compliment each other -- we didn't just pick the 10 most physical or anything like that -- we wanted game players, we wanted second-chancers, we wanted Favorites the audience would love. We wanted a really good combination."
Since Survivor: Micronesia represents the show's sixteenth installment, there was presumably a large pool to choose from when casting the Fans.
"How we picked them was -- for the most part -- we wanted to find the biggest fans that we had," he explained. "We wanted people that would be enamored when they discovered they were playing against some of their favorite people to ever play Survivor. Then we hoped what would happen is that idolatry would turn into animosity, and it did."
Probst said that "initial moment of worship" was evident as soon as the Fans were introduced to the Favorites on the beaches of Palau, but "by the first challenge, there is such animosity" between the two tribes.
"In the first few moments of the show, we bring out the Fans onto a beach and it's pouring down rain. It's raining so hard... Everybody's just obliterated, covered, drenched in water," he said. "Then we bring out the Favorites, and it's like the [Fans] are at a rock concert watching their favorite rock star. They're just applauding, and saying, 'Here comes James! Here comes Yau-Man! Oh my gosh, it's Ozzy!' Then when they realize that the Favorites weren't really there to make any new friends, the game quickly became us against them, and that's how they hunkered down. The Fans wanted to be sure that a Fan won the game, and the Favorites wanted to be certain -- that no matter what -- a Favorite won the game."
Because the Favorites are returning castaways Probst has a relationship with, he said he made a point to tell the Fans that he would remain "completely objective."
"I certainly don't root for [the Favorites]," he said. "For me, a good season would be lose one from each tribe every single week. That keeps the game interesting."
Probst said it was difficult to say if either the Fans or the Favorites had a distinct advantage as the competition began.
"It's a little of both," he said. "Certainly when you look at the Favorites, you have 10 people who averaged maybe 30 days out there. That's 300 days -- that's nearly a year's worth of experience when it comes to building shelter, making fire, and knowing how to play this game from a strategy point of view. That's a huge advantage."
However he quickly added that advantage could be negated because you "can't hide if you're a Favorite."
"Everybody knows Yau-Man is not just a nice, older guy trying to help you find coconuts. They know this guy is a strategic player and has to be watched. If you're Ozzy, there's nowhere to hide. They know you're a threat in every physical challenge," he explained. "I think if you're a Favorite, you have a big target on your back... If you're a Fan, nobody knows you... In that sense, I think the advantage that the Fans have is that they can become whoever they want to be and they aren't a known quantity."
Probst added "the big question" facing the Favorites is how they decide to "reinvent" themselves from when they first appeared on the show, which the Fans no doubt watched unfold from their living rooms.
"If you're a Favorite and you want to win this game, you better have Plan B," said Probst.
The two Favorites who Probst said didn't really have to reinvent themselves as much were Kimmel and Clement. Since Micronesia began filming only a couple of months after China stopped shooting, Survivor: China was still airing on CBS when the Fans vs. Favorites castaways departed for Palau.
"It was very odd for me to show up and see James and Amanda again. It was like, 'Wow! We just left,'" explained Probst. "Amanda had no idea what the [Survivor: China] results was going to be when she headed out for this one... The interesting thing about this was, when everybody left to go do Fans vs. Favorites, James hadn't been voted off [China] yet, and neither had Amanda."
While they didn't necessarily have to concoct Plan B, Probst added Kimmel and Clement still had their own set of quandaries.
"You have two people out there, and everybody's looking at them thinking, 'Well, you must have done well because you're on the Favorites season. How well did you do?' I think if they had known either one of those guys had won, that might impact the game," he explained." How much of their hand do they play because they don't want to have this target on their back and get voted out because of it. But in the case of Amanda, she didn't know [whether she had won Survivor:China]. She had no idea."
While the fact that the Fans "don't know how bad it's going to get" in the competition would seem to work against them, Probst actually called that an "advantage" because they're "going on pure adrenaline."
Regardless of who has the advantage, both the Fans and Favorites entered the competition with an acute knowledge of the game, so Probst was surprised how many jaw-dropping Tribal Council sessions emerged during the season.
"We have a record number of [Tribal Council] blind-sides this season," he said. "It is amazing how many blind-sides happen in a row. You think after this many seasons that pulling off a blind-side would be tough. But it just showed me you really have to have your wits about you in this game because if you are not aware than you're in the fog -- and if you're in the fog -- you're in trouble."
Survivor: Micronesia will also feature the return of Exile Island, which was first introduced in Survivor: Panama but dumped in favor of the "kidnapping" concept for Survivor: China. Probst had previously mentioned that if Exile Island did come back, it would "hopefully" be in a "different form" -- which is what viewers will see in Micronesia.
"We continue to really mess with it and see if we can really maximize it," he said. "The idea this time was, each week one person from each tribe will have to go to Exile Island -- so you will always have one Fan and one Favorite. The idea behind that was two-fold. You're now going to have one person from each tribe getting the chance to spend time together so that if and when they merge this could be alliance breakers and you might have new relationships formed that are going to play-out after the merge. That was the strategy part of it that was appealing."
"The other [part], from a game point of view," continued Probst, "is we have one idol hidden somewhere out on Exile Island. So you have two people, one clue, one idol. How is this going to work? How are you going to sneak away and look for the idol without the other person? What do you do if you both find it? Who will own it? No matter what, they're probably going to know you find it. How do you keep them quiet?"
And Exile Island's hidden Immunity Idol won't be the only the castaways will be scrambling for this season. Although Probst only specifically explained the existence of the Exile Island version, Reality TV World later confirmed that additional Immunity Idols hidden at both tribal camps will also come into play at certain points in the competition.
"I can tell you that the idols play a MAJOR PART in this season," said Probst. "They do have more impact than I think they've ever had. They have more impact this season than ever before -- and luckily for James, [who] currently hold the title for biggest blunder in Survivor history -- luckily for him, he only holds it for one season. We have someone this season that makes an even bigger blunder. A major blunder. I know when it happens that James was thinking, 'Thank God.'"
Despite their less-than-hygienic living conditions, at least one pair of castaways also decided to make use of the condoms that are included in each Survivor season's tribal supply packages.
"We have love affairs this season. Plural. They play [out beginning in] Episode 2 [and] we have some of the most intimate footage we've ever had of a love affair developing and 'consummating,'" Probst said after explaining that the show's supply packages began including condoms because "we learned... we don't want to have any Survivor babies."
"We have the most intimate footage of Survivors being intimate I think that we've ever had," Probst explained. It was brilliant how we got it -- how we captured it -- because it's hard to do. They try to hide and we out-thought them and got some great footage. There's two love affairs that play a big part in this season all the way to the end."
Survivor: Micronesia filmed in late 2007 in the same location as Survivor: Palau. Probst had gushed about the region's crystal clear waters prior to Palau's Winter 2005 premiere, and did so again during Wednesday's conference call.
"It really is just the perfect spot. We would shoot every season in Palau if we could find a way to make it happen," he said. "Palau is hands down the most beautiful place that we've ever been. We have great underwater photography again. You're going to see all kinds of underwater sea life. You'll see great shots of challenges. I love it when you can see somebody jump off a platform and come into the water and it's them, and they grab the key and they bust back up out of the water and the cameras tracking along with them while they're swimming. That's fun, and we have that this season."
Probst said there's also a "practical" plus to Palau.
"It allowed [the crew] to be in really nice hotels, right by the water, close to base camp, lots of fun boat rides," he said. "So it was nice for production, and that's a big consideration."
Despite the crystal-clear water and plush accommodations, Probst said he "didn't expect it to be as rainy."
"During the time we were in Palau, the rainy season had just ended. But, the Philippines were having some bad weather and as a result we got a lot of storms. It made it a very difficult season," he explained. "This time the cast suffered. I don't want to give too much away, but you'll see that the Survivors took a physical beating like we've never had before. Nothing compares to how tough it was for them this time. You will see that play-out for them on the show."
During the conference call, Probst also provided brief comments about some of Survivor: Micronesia's castaways -- and some not-so-brief comments about Jonny Fairplay:
"In the second episode, we have one of our most physical [challenges] ever. It is basically a game of tackle the dummy. When Joel saw James walk out, he made a comment about, 'Well up until this season, James had been the biggest and the most physical Survivor ever... Up until this season. I can't wait to go after him.'"
- Erik Reichenbach (a 22-year-old ice cream scooper from Ypsilanti, MI who is originally from Hell, MI)
"He's been watching the show since it went on the air and when we met him on casting, he said 'I've been waiting for this day. I've been praying that the show would be on long enough so that I could get a chance.' Erik is this kid that, he's so endearing. He shows up on the island wearing -- he's a runner, he's a long-distance cross country runner -- and he show up in a track outfit. In green. Everything is green -- his shoes, his pants -- everything is green. He's got this long, almost lion-like main of hair. He's bouncing with energy and he can't believe it when he finds out he's playing against people like Ozzy and James, his idols."
- Mary Sartain (a 29-year-old small business owner from Emeryville, CA)
"I was on the fence about Mary. Coming into the game, I think her battle is going to be getting in with the right group. So much of Survivor is who you align yourself with initially. If you pick wisely, you can ride that alliance quite far. If you're on the wrong side of the numbers, you can be gone before you even get a chance. That's what I thought about Mary coming in -- I didn't have a big, strong take on she's going to be a leader or a follower. I wasn't sure. So that's the thing I would be watching for with Mary, which way does she lean right when the game starts."
- Jason Siska (a 22-year-old student teacher from Fox River Grove, IL)
"[Jason's] the same way [as Erik]. Young guy who kind of aspires to be Ozzy. He talks the talk... He was from the Virgin Islands, so he really fancies himself as 'Ozzy, Jr.' That's all he could talk about, 'I can't wait to meet Ozzy!' Almost like he has a man-crush on Ozzy. He said, 'I can't wait to get out there and show him what I can do!' I was sitting there thinking it's one thing to talk the talk if you think you can take on Ozzy, it is another thing entirely to do what Ozzy does in this game. Ozzy comes out on Day 1 and is just as good as he ever was."
"Kathy applied, I think it's seven times. In fact, we almost put her on [Fall 2004's Survivor: Vanuatu], but she didn't make the cut. So we kind of had her floating around. She's crazy -- crazy to the point of being so wacky that it's peculiar and entertaining. But she is at her core a huge Survivor fan. She knows everything that ever happened on every episode. She knows everybody that ever played, and she wants to play. That was sort of what we were looking for in everybody."
"He's one of my favorite all-time Survivors because he 'gets it.' He knows what the show is. He knows that it's a game for $1 million, and he's also aware that it's being televised. He's a great storyteller, and I appreciate that. Jonathan complains more than anybody who has ever complained in this game. At every challenge he's whining and bitching that something's not fair. It cracks me up... The guy was completely exposed as being absolutely un-trustable. You can't trust Jonathan at all -- he showed that -- he betrayed everybody in Cook Islands. He flipped from one side to the other."
"You need the game changers in Eliza and Amy -- people who will betray at the drop of a hat. If Amy can get her way, she will get that girls' alliance again like she did in Vanuatu and try to run the game."
"Why is she out there? She's out there for the second chance. That's the same reason we had [eventual winner Amber Brkichon] in the All-Stars. We looked at Parvati and said she played one beat the last time: the flirt. It didn't work -- it got her a long way -- but it didn't work. So what if Parvati could combine being a flirt with some newfound strategy? That's what Parvati has to do, come out and have another layer."
"Not my favorite person in the world -- but in terms of the show -- he's giving you something... I cannot tell you if Fairplay's coming or going; honest or a liar; straight or bent... I have no idea. The guy is a huge, fascinating question for me. I watch his life from the outside and all the reality shows he's done and getting tossed on his face and now marrying somebody and having a baby... I really don't know what to think of it all. I think it's quite a life he's leading and my initial reaction was when we decided to do the season was, 'Let's not bring Fairplay back. He's not our pedigree anymore. We don't need him. We made him, he went out and did something with it, but he's kind of used it up.' Then wiser heads prevailed and I quickly realized how could you do a season without Fairplay. He's your most notorious figure ever. I can tell you we got exactly what we expected and we deserved for putting Fairplay on the show."
"Fairplay and I have had an interesting relationship because -- for them -- there's a lot of real life I think that goes on out there. The themee of Survivor still play, which is if you if lie, cheat and steal you can get away with a lot, but typically you won't win this game. Karma and consequence will catch-up with you in the end and you won't get the votes. So in that sense there's a realness to it."
"Fairplay and I have always had this sort of [World Wrestling Entertainment-type] relationship, where he's this crazy, drunk villain and I'm his straight man. At a certain point, I just got tired of it. I was like, 'I'm so done with this guy Fairplay. I don't want you in my life, I don't really care if you're ever on Survivor again, please don't come to any more of the parties. I'm done with you.'"
"Then I had a change of heart. I started seeing Fairplay as a guy who's struggling and he is a real person who created this persona and it's kind of become his legacy. But underneath that is a guy trying to live a life and he's got his demons like we all do. Now he's going to be a father. I had a big change of heart. Now I just see him as a guy who is on this reality show Survivor and he created this persona and he damn well better deliver if we're going to give you one of 10 spots -- you better show up. But other than that, I don't think a lot about it one way or the other."
"[His October 2007 altercation with Danny Bonaduce] was really uncomfortable to watch. My first reaction as a person who's in the reality world, I had a little bit of skepticism. Was that a real moment? Was that a planned, staged moment that went awry? Was it just completely spontaneous? It was very uncomfortable to watch -- watching anybody get dropped on their face. I saw the damage to his teeth when he was on the show. It wasn't fake, it was real. That was just disturbing."
"When I see stuff like that, I have to remind myself that Survivor was given the label 'reality' by you guys. That makes sense, we're in the same category. But I don't see Survivor being in a world with many of the other reality shows. I think there's a few shows that are the gold standard, and I think everybody knows those shows. They've been on a long time, they get really solid ratings. Then there's just a bunch of experiments going on -- some of them are interesting, some of them aren't. When I see that, it's when I'm reminded we have a pretty high-class show in our world. That might be a funny phrase to use for Survivor, but that's how we look at it. We feel like we have some of the best storytelling on television, and that's what we work hard at."