As he typically does before every new season, Survivor host Jeff Probst met with the media on Monday afternoon, teasing the press about Survivor Panama's upcoming season and sharing some previously undisclosed details about the new twists that viewers will see in the twelfth edition of the of the long-running CBS reality show.

Chief among Survivor: Panama's changes will be two twists that CBS has heavily hyped since it first announced the show's February 2 premiere date earlier this month: banishing one of each week's castaways to an "Exile Island" and beginning the competition with four age and gender divided tribes.

Rather than initially dividing the castaways into the show's traditional two tribe format, Survivor: Panama will begin by dividing the castaways into four tribes comprised of four contestants each. The castaways will be broken up by both age and sex -- younger men, younger women, older men, and older women -- and remain that way for the premiere episode's tribal challenge. However the four tribe format will be short lived, with the four tribes destined to become two during a "schoolyard pick" that will occur during the show's second episode.

Also shaking the castaways up in the show's opening minutes will be Probst's announcement that in addition to beginning the game with four tribes, each Survivor: Panama episode will feature at least one castaway being banished to a "tiny island of exile" for "days at a time." "[The castaways] get introduced to Exile Island about 30 seconds into the show... [and] suddenly you see everybody's wheels stop," explained Probst. "The worst part about Exile Island is you are away from everybody. You don't know what's happening back at camp and that's deadly."

But while being banished will mean that the exiled castaway will be away from camp, getting sent to Exile Island will give the isolated contestant one potentially huge advantage -- the chance to find a hidden Immunity Idol. Similar to the Survivor: Guatemala hidden Immunity Idol that enabled Gary Hogeboom to temporarily save himself from being voted off during last season's edition of the show, finding Panama's idol will allow the castaway to prevent themselves from being voted off at the next Tribal Council session.

However unlike Guatemala's one-time idol, Panama's Exile Island idol will be re-hidden after every use and rather than having to announce their intention to use it before the tribe members cast their Tribal Council votes, the holder of Panama's idol will be able to withhold their announcement that they plan to use the idol until after the tribe has already voted. Should the person possessing the hidden idol receive the most votes, the person receiving the second most votes will instead be ousted. The hidden idol will be good through the game's Final Four, after which it will no longer hold any power.

According to Probst, the hidden Immunity Idol twist -- and the ability to only play the idol after the Tribal Council's votes have already been cast -- will significantly change the game's strategy. "That changed the game dramatically because you can't sucker me now," explained Probst. "If I have the idol and you try to sucker me, I'm safe and whoever has the next number of votes is going home. So you better be careful about how you vote. You better think twice. And if I'm smart, and I've been on Exile Island, I'm going to lead you to believe I've found it."

Later, Probst once again stressed how dramatically he felt the mere possibility that an exiled castaway had found the hidden Immunity Idol during their stay on Exile Island had changed the game. "The twist that I think really threw everybody was being able to play the immunity idol after the vote -- because everybody's figured out strategies of how to ensure that this four can go this far, as long as we don't vote for each other," said Probst.

"But now, what if I have the idol and I don't tell you? And what if you vote for me, all of you guys vote for me and I cast my single vote for you? And I have the idol and you're the one that has to go home?" "That will screw your game up and everybody knows that -- they know that any time somebody has been to Exile Island that means the idol could have been found. It means it could have been traded with someone. You don't know. Maybe I'm telling you I have it and I don't. Maybe I'm not telling you I have it and I do."

"At one point someone said to me at Tribal Council that...'You know, we think this has just changed the game too much,' [and] I cracked up -- that's definitely a sign it's working!" "[It] fundamentally changed the game, [that] can't be stated enough. I said early on that I would imagine there's a time [in the game] when people might not care about... might not think that going to Exile Island is such a bad thing."

Survivor: Panama will also feature less heated backstabbing than Guatemala, with the Panama cast -- although they played the game enthusiastically and hard -- opting to play a mostly honorable game. "This season in particular is probably the most introspective group of people we've ever had," said Probst. "There are five or six people who come out there with more of a spiritual investigative bent -- [more] than ever before -- and it leads to some interesting situations because this game will test your ethics... it will test your morals." "Tribal Councils were just as investigative and just as tough [as in Guatemala], but they were done with a smile and a bit of fun."

"I think this group of people really wanted to play Survivor and that's different," explained Probst. "They didn't come out here grunting and groaning and fighting and bitching and moaning. They came out and said 'What a great experience.' You are going to see that on the show."
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Probst also believes that enthusiasm for the game will translate into popularity with Survivor viewers, predicting that at least two of Survivor: Panama's castaways will emerge as all-time fan favorites and the season itself will be considered one of the long-running reality show's top editions. "You are going to like a lot of people this season," said Probst. "I think we'll see two of the most popular characters we've ever had." "I am saying right now that [Survivor: Panama] will be one of the top five seasons. We will see if the audience agrees."

Chief among Probst's list of Panama's standout castaways is Shane Powers, a 35-year-old entertainment marketing company owner from Los Angeles that Probst described as a "homerun." "Shane's the guy that if he walked in every season and looked different, we'd put him on every season," said Probst. "He opens his mouth and you go, oh what's he going to say next? This is a guy that smoked for 20 years, three packs a day and I think half the reason he came out here was he wanted to quit."

However even Shane didn't receive as much praise from Probst as Cirie Fields, a 35-year-old registered nurse that Probst described as "one of my Top 5 people ever on the show." "Cirie represents every person that watches Survivor and sits on their couch and says, 'I could do that' but they never get up," said Probst. "Cirie got up and that's what makes me love Cirie. She is the least likely person you'd ever expect to see make it on the show... she's just wonderful."

The longtime Survivor host also credited Survivor: Panama for helping him decide to sign an extension to continue hosting the show, confessing that similar to Spring 2003's Survivor: All-Stars, Survivor: Guatemala's bickering-filled season that featured the return of previous Survivor: Palau castaways Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard had effected his own enjoyment of the show.

"I didn't enjoy going to Tribal Council and arguing all the time, " Probst admitted. "For me Guatemala was not how I would chose to spend my time, it wasn't that much fun -- [but that] doesn't mean it wasn't a good season." "Guatemala surprised me how ugly it was -- I didn't like it. I would never want to do a season like that. I would never choose to do a season like that."

By contrast, Survivor: Panama was a refreshing experience. "I went out there without anything hanging over my head and I had such a great time and I was able to clearly see how much I enjoyed the people I work with -- these are some of my closest friends -- and how much I enjoyed the show," Probst gushed. "There were a couple of times this season at Tribal Council where I was having almost an out of body experience where I realized [that] I still get to do this!"

But despite Probst's clear personal dissatisfaction with the two Survivor editions that have featured returning castaways, he admits the idea will "probably get revisited again." "I was one of the people who had the idea about Steph and Bobby Jon [returning] so I can't walk away from it, but after [Guatemala] and All Stars, you really saw how it changes people. It changed Steph the second time."

While Probst declined to speculate as to whether Survivor: Panama will continue the slight ratings uptick begun by last fall's Survivor: Guatemala (given the new season's early episodes will be airing against both ABC's Dancing with the Stars 2 and American Idol 5's semi-finals results show, that's probably extremely unlikely), Probst did make it clear that he feels viewers will enjoy the new season more than last fall's edition.

"I never thought Guatemala was going to be a popular season [and] I never said I did," said Probst. "I said it was a feisty season, I was selling it for what it was... it was a feisty season. With [Panama], we have more people with more life, more vitality and a true enthusiasm like we did in Palau. It was a fun group. I had a good time doing this show and I truly think you are going to see that."