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Emmys 2017
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Survivor producer says new final Tribal Council format is 'here to stay'

Exec producer Matt Van Wagenen also weighs in on next season, casting more fans, and lessons learned from the past.

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There were about a million twists in Survivor: Game Changers, but producers saved the most important one for last. Instead of the standard Q&A that had marked the final Tribal Council in the first 33 seasons, Jeff Probst unleashed a new debate-and-discuss format that allowed for more spontaneous interaction between the jury and finalists. It seemed to be a hit with both contestants and viewers, but will we see it again?

We asked Survivor executive producer Matt Van Wagenen exactly that when we visited in Fiji for filming on season 36 of Survivor (which will air in the spring) last week, and his comments echo those of Jeff Probst, who recently told us that the open forum would be “the new norm” for the show. “I think it’s here to stay,” agrees Van Wagenen. “I don’t see us going backwards. We rarely go backwards. And in this case, we strive to be real, and I know that sounds a bit clichéd or cheesy on a reality show, but we really do strive to have a very real experience. And I think having someone just stand up and ask you a question or talk at you is not as real as a discussion between a group of people saying who deserves to win.”

Since season 35 (Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers) has already been filmed and will air in the fall and the planning for season 36 is already complete, that means we will definitely have the new format for two more seasons at the very least, but Van Wagenen and Probst both make the move sound permanent.

RELATED: Every Season of Survivor Ranked

Van Wagenen also explained why they decided to make the switch. “It really starts with Jeff. He’s been there from day 1. I started in season 14. A lot of times, we do things because we’ve been doing them that way. And one of the things Jeff is great about — he’s so tenacious when it comes to this — is questioning ‘Why are we still doing this? Are we doing this for a reason? Is there a better way to do it?’ I think it was, how can we make this better? We were all starting to feel it a little bit.”

“It was really taking a big risk,” Van Wagenen continues. “We didn’t know how the players would react to it, we didn’t know how the audience would react to it, and I would say that the audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ll tell you this — editing it and putting it together is a process because that final Tribal takes twice as long as a normal one because there is so much discussion. But I think it gives you an opportunity if you’re there to fight for your place in the game. It’s not just someone talking at you, it’s a discussion. And I’m actually, in hindsight, surprised it took us this long to get to this point the game.”

The executive producer also discussed a host of other topics and you can now hear the entire interview on the latest edition of the EW Morning Live podcast below. Here are a few highlights from the wide-ranging discussion:

On what it is like on the first day of filming on a season:
“There’s an excitement. It feels a little bit like you’re a kid on Christmas Eve shaking the presents trying to figure out what you’ve got. And there is this kind of cool feeling when you’re shaking your present and it’s a little bit big and it makes a lot of noise when you shake it. There’s definitely some nervousness because you don’t know what it is and you don’t know how our twists are going to play out and you’re looking at the beginning of what could be an incredible season. [Or] it could be an average season. But luckily, over the past few years, I feel like we’ve been hitting the high bar.”

On next season’s theme of Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers:
“We were going for a theme of how people are seen. Not necessarily how they see themselves but how other people see them. For instance, there’s a person on who is a military vet, and right off the bat, he would say he’s not a hero, which is probably the most heroic thing he could start off saying. But he’s a hero to his family. And so it’s not necessarily how someone sees themselves but it’s how other people see them.”

On the psychology of being labeled something like a Hero, a Healer, or a Hustler:
“There is something about putting a label on someone, and very often you see that at first they might bristle — you know, they go ‘What do you mean I’m No Collar?’ or Tai, for instance, couldn’t believe he was on the Beauty tribe. Then as soon as they kind of live with it and they talk about it, they start to kind of become it a little bit and start to wear it. But in some cases, it takes a little while for them to feel comfortable with that label. But in the end, you see at the end of the season they are just players and those are labels and it’s just a question of how are they going to react to those labels.”

On if they had any discussions about there being too many idols and advantages in play after Cirie went home with no votes cast against her in Game Changers:
“We always have discussions on how we can make the show better, but I would say in that case we really didn’t have many more idols than we normally do. Tai was smart and ended up with two of them and unbelievably held on to them for as long as he did. We had Troyzan, who held on to his for a long time. The Legacy Advantage had been there throughout the whole game and we had been expecting it. We always have a formula, like, how many things are out there and can we keep playing the game so that we don’t have a situation where nobody goes home. There’s always a situation where someone’s going to go home. So I think the twists add a lot. I think you reward people who find them. I think you reward people who know how to play them. And then sometimes people make horrible mistakes and don’t play one and get voted out or they play it too early and are exposed for having a secret.”

On if his opinions while filming a season usually match-up to how it is received once it’s all edited together and aired:
“I feel like there are a couple of seasons where we felt one way and it’s kind of been the opposite. If I’m going to be totally candid, I think season 30. We were kind of jazzed about season 30 and we went out there and watched Mike Holloway kind of run through the competition and we thought it was a real fun story to watch. And he was fighting against some people who a lot of fans didn’t love, and I think that we realized in that case maybe that’s not what they’re looking for. I think one of the things we learned from there is that you want to have a lot of people to root for. And that’s where I look at a season when we can say — and we’ve seen it in recent seasons since then — where you look at the people heading into the finale and you go ‘Gosh, I could see myself rooting for all of them.’ If we sit there the first day of the finale and I can say ‘I root for all of these people to win,’ then I know we’ve got a good season on our hands.”

On why they have been trying to cast more fans lately:
“In the casting process recently we really have strived to have fans on. We really want to have people who know the game and love the game for a variety of reasons. But one of the reasons is at the end of the season when we’re standing there and now they’re having a discussion between the entire jury and the people who are fighting to win, you want it to be a positive one and you want people to feel good when you leave that discussion. You don’t want it to get ugly, and I think people who are fans have kind of an appreciation for the game and an understanding that it is just a game, And, of course, there’s always hurt feelings, but you want to have people that say, ‘Yeah, you beat me and therefore you deserve the million dollars.”

To hear the entire interview — including Van Wagenen’s comments on pleasing both super and casual fans, his revelation on what the biggest challenge in making the show is, and the answer as to what happened to the fake immunity idol kit that Debbie did not select on Exile Yacht — either download the episode on iTunes or listen to it above. You can also hear our interviews with Matthew Perry and Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson. And for more EW Morning Live podcast news, follow us on Twitter @EWMLPodcast.

Keep an eye — and an ear —out for our on-location Fiji interview with challenge producer John Kirhoffer next week!

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