Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett on the past, present, and future of Survivor
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. <iframe src="https://art19.com/shows/chasing-emmy/episodes/f4d7c240-6a86-45eb-ba6b-bc2c2ef41f3b/embed?theme=light-gray-orange" width="300" height="200" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""><span data-mce-type="bookmark" class="mce_SELRES_start"></span></iframe>
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?
It's interesting talking about the ideas because you guys have set up shop in Fiji for the past few years and Jeff, I remember you and I talking and you said you hoped you never left there because of everything that location offers you. I was curious if that also poses a challenge for you all in the sense that you always do have to have a new theme. The title just can't be Survivor and then the name of the country. It has to be something else.
BURNETT: I think the opposite. Exactly what you said is true, so let's follow that. Survivor needs and has had themes now for several, several years and therefore it made it more wise to choose a location that really works on all levels versus just find a location because it had the name of the country [for the title]. So actually, this is one of the best productions and creative decisions you can imagine.
And as I said at the beginning, really the big thing about Survivor is Jeff. Jeff is Survivor and that's the reason the show does so well, and it was Jeff's choice to want to have one location. I probably look back and wonder: Was it the right move to have changed country names every year? Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it's what Jeff said — we had to go A, B, C, D, E and F versus jump A to X or something like that, but having these themes is much more descriptive and a better attractor to the mass audience I think then just naming a country.
If Survivor is Jeff, as you said, that leads to the natural question: Can this show continue without Jeff?
BURNETT: It's a hypothetical. Right at the minute we're about to go shoot season 38. So it's a hypothetical. Obviously we're hoping Jeff stays, hoping Jeff's enjoying doing it, and yeah, there's a reason that the show works so well. It's all of that leadership and charisma and vision and inspiring hundreds of people to march to the same drum and to solve problems as they come, be that massive storms, safety issues, creative issues and thinking on your feet, and Jeff does that. It's not me running Survivor. Yeah, I started it, but Jeff runs it, Jeff manages it, Jeff's the face of it, Jeff's the creative vision of it, and Jeff's kept a brilliant team around him also.
I'm curious: How often do you two disagree on things when it comes to the creative or casting of the show?
BURNETT: Zero, because Jeff has full control.
You never exercise your veto power, Mark?
BURNETT: I think what makes me pretty good at my job is, I don't find brilliant people and then micromanage them. Find brilliant people and recognize why they're brilliant and let them continue to be brilliant. Like, do you think someone's trying to tell LeBron James how to dunk? I don't think so. I'm not trying to tell Jeff how to do his job — that'd be ridiculous.
I'd like to see Jeff try to dunk. Jeff, can you dunk?
PROBST: Uh, no. But I want to just tell you something we've probably told you before. Imagine that we're on this show and with the creative team that's all pretty much been there from the beginning, and we're 7 or 8 seasons in and Mark says, "I'm not going to do this show forever. I have other shows. I'm going to give this show to you guys." And then he gives it to you! He gives you the show! And he lets you do your thing, right or wrong — it's not a judgment he's making. He's upholding a promise he made which is: I get it, you guys want to fly your own flag. I get it. So go, have fun. And he didn't even say, "Take what I've taught you," or, "Never forget to do this." He didn't say any of that. It was implied. We'd already had our Masters class in how to tell a story in a jungle with heroes and villains and arc types and underdogs and all that stuff. And we just did it.
And CBS has been the same way. They rarely say no to anything and they continue to trust us. And in both cases what I've learned of leadership is, if you give people autonomy, they will amaze you. Just hire good people and let them go and you'll be fascinated and inspired by what they bring back to you. And that's what it's been. And so we have this incredible gift that we all refer to as the glass ball. And if you ask any of the small team, none of us wants to drop the ball. We all carry it and cradle it like this beautiful gift because it is. We have a franchise show, a global brand and one of the most enjoyable, fun, kick-ass jobs anyone would ever dream of ending up with.
And Jeff, if you don't have some of this sort of creative control that you're talking about, you're not still hosting this show, right?
PROBST: Yes. It's a one-word answer. And Mark knew that about me from the beginning. Mark gave me a voice from day one. Literally, day one as in the day I landed in Borneo, he took me on a helicopter and we went to a sand spit and they dropped us and he and I walked up and down this sand spit as the tide came in and then the tide went out, and he just talked for about two and a half hours about Survivor. And this is what he imagined would happen on this show. And then he said, "I'm never gonna be in your ear, I'm never gonna tell you what to say, I'm just gonna trust that you get the story that I'm trying to tell and you'll do your part in telling it."
And he stayed true to his word, which may not sound like much to somebody who's not in this industry, but to anybody who's in this industry, you know a producer actually giving you the reigns in an unscripted, live show — the fact that we're taped and broadcast later does not take away from the fact that we are live in the moment. And whether he second-guessed me or not along the way, he never let me know. And that allowed my instinct to continue to blossom and I thought I was doing a good job. It didn't matter if I wasn't; I believed I was, so I just kept trying things. And that's really why it was and is still so invigorating to me — I never wanted to be a puppet. I turned down lots of jobs before Survivor that were teleprompter, dating shows, walk and talk, just stuff I wasn't interested in. What appealed about Survivor was the organic nature of studying humans and their behavior. So it was a perfect opportunity for me with a perfect boss who would become a teacher and then ultimately a friend.
NEXT PAGE: Could there be changes to the Reunion show format?
I want to ask about something that maybe is illustrative of the fact of what you get out there and then what ends up on TV. This season of Ghost Island featured one of my favorite episodes ever with the Chris–Dom showdown in the merge episode, with some of the best back and forth editing I've ever seen on the show. Jeff, since most of that stuff happened in the confessional interviews and Wendell's speech as he's voting Chris out, you hadn't even seen any of that stuff when you were out there, so did you have any idea what gold you had at the point even as you were filming it?
PROBST: No, not really. I mean, what we talk about in downloads is really big picture stuff. Even with the producers, because so much is happening. We start with 20 stories that you're going to chart and arc, and you're looking for every player's dramatic arc. Even if it's only one episode, you want to try to show a beginning, middle, and an end. And so we don't spend much time in the minutia. For our next season, I wrote about a -25page bible and it was everything to do with theme and ideas and stories to explore and phrasing and all these things. So we all have the same foundation, but once the show starts, it's instinct. With every producer, they know when to pull the trigger and go for the big interview, and they know when to hold back.
So we're all sort of working [with] many balls in the air at once, and then we come back home and when the season's over we start to understand it better. Like, I had a revelation about how to tell a season 37 story five days ago! We'd already finished shooting, but I realized something now that it's all said and done and I had a better understanding of really what happened out there because we're so comprehensive in our interviews and our producers are so good at getting the story. That's all we need is their truth.
And to your thing about the cross-cutting, what I love about you picking up on that is that was inspired by The Defiant Ones [the HBO docuseries on Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine]. And when I watched that series I called our producers and I said, "Let's go to our own next level of getting outside of being so literal with our interviews." And we're going to continue to do this. Let's just combine the images we have with the thoughts they're feeling and see what we can figure out.
And then we had this beautiful opportunity and our editors just destroyed it. I mean, in the best way, they just masterfully cut this back and forth that was truly like a mob showdown, and then you get this great line, this great moment when the two sides come together and Wendell says, "Can we bargain? Can we have a peace treaty?" And Chris says no. And Wendell says, "Fine, we're going to war." You couldn't get it any cleaner or any better and it was really exciting and it captured the truth. Three guys going at it, but only two are going to survive because somebody's going home tonight.
Obviously the big finale is coming up Wednesday night. Are there any big twists or things that you can tease in terms of what we're going to see in the finale for Ghost Island?
PROBST: Well, really it's a payoff to Ghost Island. There's still a big decision to be made on Ghost Island. When you think back on the idea, the inspiration was, it really only works if we can get all these original artifacts. So, you know the story, we called collectors, we called fans, we called players, and we had one last thing we needed in the final episode to really pay off Ghost Island all the way through, and we have that, so there's still a big decision and a tremendous finale. There's still so much gameplay left.
A few seasons back you tweaked the final Tribal Council format and added this open conversation element which really invigorated things. That leads me to ask about the reunion show. Any plans to mix things up there either this Wednesday night or in the future?
PROBST: The way I look at the reunion might be unique only to me, but I look at our finale night as a three-hour block of Survivor. So the pitch I make to CBS and Mark is, "We have three hours of Survivor, and if our finale is an extra 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 minutes, what difference does it make? We just want the most entertaining night we can have." And CBS is good with that. What we have to balance is, how late can the vote be? Because you have a lot of kids watching and you know, parents let their kids stay up late, so I'm also aware that you don't want to push it too late.
And for years I struggled with trying to talk to everybody, because I felt some responsibility for everybody to get their last words in, and over the years I've gotten a little less concerned about that and hopefully become a better producer in that our job is to entertain our audience that's staying up with us. So I think the reunion will continue to evolve and maybe evolve from season to season depending on where the best content is. We're not going to do it exactly like we did last year, but it will definitely have the same big, live feel. I'll be in the audience, I'll be doing more live cut–ins.
BURNETT: Jeff's making a really important point. Jeff knows that his job is to entertain millions and millions of people, not to have like a college graduation for a bunch of people who've actually committed to a contest. And therefore, choosing what's the best communication device to the millions and millions of people around the world is what it takes the courage to do, and that's what Jeff's done. That philosophy has allowed Jeff more time, because time is very tight on television obviously, and that's the way it works.
PROBST: The other thing we're doing during the reunion is, CBS has a new show with Kevin Hart [titled TKO: Total Knock Out]. It's a really fun show that will attract a Survivor audience, and so Kevin Hart's going to be in our reunion as well, introducing the show and explaining what it is. They're actually shooting next door to us, so he's gonna come over while they're shooting and do a live bit with us, which is really fun. So we're just looking to keep that show fun and fresh, and I think it's a show that Survivor families will like so it makes a lot of sense to use the time to promote it during our show.
NEXT PAGE: What's in store for season 40?
One thing tied into the reunion a few years back was the Second Chance vote where fans voted players back onto the show. That was super exciting and I'm actually surprised you guys have not done some form of that again.
PROBST: Well, the first thing is, you have to have a worthy group of Second Chancers. We just did it in 31 and we had a worthy group, and part of the reason it was so good is that we were really invested in the players and we wanted them to have a second chance. It's only now 36, so we've only had a few seasons since then. But the idea of a live vote, definitely want to do it again, it's very exciting. You just have to find the context, if it's Second Chance players then we have to have a big enough group of compelling Second Chancers, but there are other things we could do with a live vote.
But you just have to be patient when you're producing a show like Survivor. You have to believe that the pace is important and go from A to B to C to D. Because if we had done another live vote the next year, I don't know if it would have been as special. If we did all-stars all the time, it wouldn't be as special. But every so often, it's fun to bring back players or do an all-star so you're just constantly looking at the board.
I'm often writing the last 10 seasons out on a whiteboard and just looking at them and seeing: Where is our pace? What are we due for? What haven't we done lately? Oh, maybe it's time for a live vote and then we do it. Right now on our creative whiteboard we probably have 20 advantages, variations that we can throw into any season and we've earned every one of those because we patiently introduced them one at a time. And just like with Ghost Island, when people say, "Would you ever do Ghost Island 2?" Absolutely! But before we get to that, Ghost Island is now an advantage in the game. We could easily bring back a Ghost Island relic with the same opportunity — risk your vote for an advantage and it can be a one-up. It's now in our wheelhouse.
Finally, season 40 is around the corner now. You guys would be filming that next year. Do you think you will do a big blowout for that one? You did a big blowout for 20 with Heroes vs. Villains, but you didn't do really anything major for 25 or 30. Any sort of initial thoughts now what you guys are thinking for the big 4-0?
PROBST: I can tell you, I'd like to do something big. It feels right, it feels time, and so that would be my guess is that we would all probably think, yeah, let's get some fun ideas together and see which one makes the most sense, which one holds the most appeal to the audience and which one feels right for where we are in our evolution right now.
BURNETT: You're right, it does feel big: Survivor 40. And again, who knows what it will be, but I do have to agree with you. I mean for me, personally, with the finale that led to the live vote and people literally had their bags packed and getting on a bus was such fun. I mean, it was such fun. The amount of people who mentioned that to me was crazy, You know, something huge. And the good news is, it's not like we have to convince ourselves to do something big because we need to, it's just because the team would want it. Jeff would want to, the team would want to.
Right, so what I'm hearing then is an all-winners edition for season 40. Whether it's true or not, that's my takeaway and I'm sticking with it. An all-winners Survivor: Champions edition for season 40.
PROBST [Laughs] We'll see!
For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.