Survivor will wrap up its 36th season Wednesday evening with the finale of Survivor: Ghost Island. It’s a remarkable feat, made all the more remarkable by the fact that 18 years into its run the show regularly still wins Wednesday nights in total viewers, with the current iteration averaging just over 8 million viewers in overnights, with around another 2 million in delayed 7-day viewing.
Shows that have burned super hot and captured the nation’s attention like CSI, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Glee, and Scandal, have all come and gone during Survivor’s run. (Or, in the case of 24, come, gone, come again, gone again, come again, and gone again.) With that in mind, we sat down with the two people most responsible for the show’s overwhelming success and absurd longevity: Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst. Burnett (who now serves as president of MGM television and digital) first brought the wild TV experiment that was Survivor to CBS in the summer of 2000 and oversaw the dominant early era of the show. The man he picked to host it, Jeff Probst, gradually expanded his role offscreen — becoming a producer and ultimately the showrunner who makes all the decisions big and small on a daily basis.
Rather than focus on specific seasons or moments, we asked the two keepers of the kingdom to take a big-picture view of the franchise. How has the show changed over the years? Do they ever look to the many foreign versions of Survivor for inspiration? Will there be a big blowout for season 40 (which would film next year)? How much longer does Jeff want to continue hosting and can the show continue on without him? And what happens when the two of them disagree on something? We asked the duo all that and more, including a look at what to expect for Wednesday’s Ghost Island finale and reunion show. (Click through all four pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Here we are at the end of season 36. The show has evolved so much over the years. What do each of you think the biggest change to Survivor has been from day 1 until now?
MARK BURNETT: That Jeff does all the work.
BURNETT: And very much gameplay. People are really, really smart in the social game. And it takes deep thought. I used to think I might be a player, but there’s no way I could think that deeply. If you watch it over time, the people have become much, much better. It’s a really, really deep-thinking game with consequences at every move. And people think almost like multi-level chess.
Jeff, what is the biggest change you’ve noticed over the course of the show?
JEFF PROBST: I think if you binge-watch Survivor, it appears as though the game evolves overnight, but if you’ve been watching for 18 years, you know better. You know that every season is just another small evolution and it’s in conjunction with the gameplay and also the culture. One of the greatest things about the format is that it is of the moment. So the people who are playing Survivor are current and things change and people change and attitudes change and right now Survivor‘s in the midst of a really exciting risky, all in, winner take all mentality, and we don’t know where it’s going to go next.
What about in terms of the creative from your end? The obvious thing to look at is the hidden immunity idols and advantages, because not only do those affect the Tribal Councils, but there’s also all the focus on finding them, obtaining them, misdirecting with them, sharing them — stuff didn’t exist at all for the first 10 seasons of the show.
PROBST: Well one thing that Mark and I, now in hindsight, look back on and realize is that if you look at Survivor and used it as a case study and started a new show today, you would be inclined to say, “Let’s make sure there are lots of twists and unpredictable advantages and game-changing opportunities.” But had our show started that way, the chances of it still being on might not be as likely. Because what we were able to do is go from A to B to C to D to E and let the show slowly evolve.
Some of these ideas you’re talking about — some of the advantages and some of the twists — they’ve been on that creative whiteboard that we all have on the Survivor creative team. And there have been many that we said, “We’re not ready for that yet. Let’s wait on that. And we keep getting lucky that we get to come back and play again. We just added something in season 37 [which just completed filming] that we’ve been waiting for years for the right moment, and it felt right.
So it’s easy to say, “Oh now they put a bunch of advantages and twists in,” but the truth is, we only put one or two in every season. We just have 36 seasons of history now to look back on and steal from.
When you guys are coming up with your creative, do you ever look at foreign iterations of the show for ideas?
PROBST: I can tell you now, I think we probably inspire a lot more challenges than we would use from another country’s version of Survivor, but definitely every so often our challenge department will find the inspiration of an idea and then we try to take it and make it our own.
But when it comes to twists and advantages, we tend to go to our own. We have our own idea of how Survivor should play and what we think is fair and appropriate. And we kind of have a saying, which is: What is the invoice? That’s a question I’m always asking. If you’re gonna find an idol, what’s the invoice? There has to be some peril or some tension or you have to risk something or risk your vote. Whatever it is, you have to pay some price to get in that door. And if you’re really successful, you get away with it. And if you’re not as good, you might get caught. That’s what makes it fun to watch and worthy when you finally achieve it.
You’re still winning the night in overall viewers most weeks, which is bonkers for being in your 36th cycle. How long can the show continue?
BURNETT: The longevity is dependent upon viewers. But we’ve got the consistency of the same leadership of Jeff and Jeff’s team around him. Jeff has led so well and inspired and kept the same people motivated and therefore, they just know the game exponentially. And that level of expertise in a production team is what has kept it so fresh with such great storytelling and such great characters. And, you know, the audience is tough. You take a look around, and there are things that don’t go forward — which is most things. This not only goes forward over and over, but tends to dominate. And not only in total viewers, but there’s a good chance on Wednesday it will win in demos as well.
Which brings us to the next question and one I used to ask you a lot, Jeff, but haven’t in quite some time: How much longer do you want to do this?
PROBST: I don’t think any of us have looked at the show that way in so long. There was a period of time in the middle where I know that all of us were asking the question that you just asked which is, “Wow, how long will this last?” And we didn’t know. And then there was a time where we just kind of all jumped on the same approach, which is that we just keep doing it.
We’re actually in the middle of our 19th year. We’ve already shot our 37th season. We’re about to shoot our 38th starting in five days. So we just keep going, and I think to the question you asked about why does it keep doing well? I mean, I don’t know the answer, but my take on it is we have a very unique relationship with our audience, and it’s why I talk to the audience at the live show. I’m talking to the people who are watching our show. And what I believe is that we have an implied agreement, which is that the audience will continue to watch so long as they believe we are continuing to try to keep the show fresh. And they’ll take a big ride with us.
When we pitched Ghost Island, that’s a crazy, corny, gigantic idea of a haunted island with an attitude that is taunting you and daring you to risk your vote and asking you how lucky you feel. That’s a huge swing, but I believed in our team and I believed as much in our audience that they would go along for the ride. And had it not worked, I think they would have said, “That’s okay, we’ll come back.” You don’t get many misses, but I think we have permission to try big ideas. And so you have an enduring format, but your job is, you have to refresh it every season and the single biggest creative hurdle is coming up with those ideas. And once you have the idea, then you’re off and running.
NEXT PAGE: Can the show continue without Probst?