In recognition of the official beginning of Emmy nomination voting today, I’ve got something to say. (Or, more accurately, something to write.) Recently, my colleague Kristen Baldwin made a plea to Emmy voters to consider The Bachelor for an Emmy nomination in the Reality Competition category, where the series has been denied a proverbial rose every single year.
Another program that has been snubbed for 11 years straight is Survivor, which is completely ludicrous, especially when you consider that it means Emmy voters chose to ignore the show during many of franchise’s best seasons ever: 2008’s Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites; 2010’s Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains; 2014’s Survivor: Cagayan; and 2015’s Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.
It’s ludicrous, but not completely surprising as the harsh reality (no pun intended) is that many of the voters are not even watching the shows they are voting for and therefore mistakenly think of Survivor as “yesterday’s news” — often asking infuriating questions like “Oh, is that still on?” even though it remains Wednesday’s most watched program on television. But I’m not going to sit here for the millionth time advocating for Survivor to get an Emmy nomination, because, a) I will just drive myself crazy, and b) I have an even more absurd recent omission to scream and yell about: the six-year absence of the name Jeff Probst in the Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality Competition Series category.
Granted, it’s not like Probst’s mantle is empty. He won the very first Reality Host Emmy in 2008. He then won it again in 2009. Then again in 2010. And again 2011. That’s right, Probst won every year for the first four years the award was handed out. But then something truly bizarre started happening. It’s as if the Television Arts & Sciences Academy decided to then ban and bar the best reality host on the planet from recognition.
Not only has Probst not won since 2011, he has not even been nominated. Let me break it down why that is so ridiculous. I’ve been on location for Survivor 16 times and watched Probst in action up close. The guy does what no other host on the planet does, and what no other host could do, yet in the six years since Probst last got a nomination, Jane Lynch has received three noms (and two wins) for Hollywood Game Night, Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog got a nom last year for Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, and Betty White was nominated for three straight years for something called Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. OFF THEIR ROCKERS!!!!!
Look, Betty White is a national treasure, Snoop is a riot, and Jane Lynch is flat-out hysterical in anything and everything she does, but for Emmy voters to say they are more qualified and immersive and impressive in the art of hosting than Probst makes me think they’re the ones who are off their rockers. This is not to dis or dismiss any other nominees, but merely to point out all the things the Survivor host does that goes well beyond the competition.
Not even the wildly talented Tom Bergeron of Dancing With the Stars — who leads the field with nine hosting nominations and deserves every single one of them — can measure up to Probst in terms of hosting under pressure. There certainly is an underappreciated art and skill to hosting a live show and Bergeron is smooth as silk. However, the degree of difficulty of what Probst does is even greater, and it’s not even close.
Instead of working in a climate-controlled Hollywood studio, Probst operates out in the elements. Has any other host ever had to narrate a challenge in 118 degree Cambodian heat — heat so pulverizing that three different contestants collapsed in one such contest? Has any other host had to work in a freakin’ cyclone? Would any of them be able to simultaneously call the winner of a challenge while being slammed by a massive wave… without falling down?!? (See below for evidence.)
Dealing with the elements is not something Probst merely endures — the nut-job actually embraces it. “He loves when the rain’s coming in,” says challenge producer John Kirhoffer, who has worked with the host since the day Survivor launched back in the summer of 2000. “He loves being out there in the rain. He loves doing Tribal Council in the pouring rain. He loves to be on the side of a helicopter. He loves to be on the top of the mast of a boat. He loves that hectic weather and the adventure. That’s the adventure part of an adventure show.” (Just watch the video at the top of the post if you don’t believe him.)
But it’s not just the fact that Probst manages to host a show while getting eaten alive by bugs as sun and rain constantly pour down on him; it’s that he is the most incisive interviewer in the business. Tribal Council is like one big group therapy session, with one person getting kicked out of the group each week. They can be contentious as people fight to get along while also doing whatever it takes to stay in the game.
A lot of folks focus on Probst’s ability to push the right buttons and get people to open up about their feelings and motivations, but he is even better at picking up on non-verbal clues. Not only does he have the capacity to — as one famous Probstism goes — “dig deep” with a contestant by forcing that person to look within him or herself, but he also is always on high alert to notice a nod, or eye roll, or shrug from someone else and then immediately shift gears to investigate. You may think that is easy watching from the comfort of your couch. It’s not.
And rarely — if ever — do other hosts have to handle the tricky social terrain that Jeff Probst does. Back in the Survivor: Redemption Island season, a racial tiff broke out between a black contestant (Phillip Sheppard) and a white one (Steve Wright). Instead of fanning the flames and trying to incite some bad blood in the hopes of making good TV, Probst addressed (and ultimately defused) the situation without allowing it to escalate to ugly levels. The restraint Probst showed in that instance was remarkable, as most hosts would have had the opposite instinct and pressed on for more.
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An even starker example was in last year’s Survivor: Game Changers, when contestant Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender, claiming the fact that Zeke had not told them proved he was capable of deception as a human being. It was about as ugly a moment as possible, and not one which Survivor producers expected to happen, as evidenced by the fact that Zeke went through a full first season — Millennials vs. Gen X — without the topic ever coming up. But when it did happen, there was no way around it. It was now part of the game.
Unlike most hosts who would have jumped right in to make themselves the star of the show, Probst sat back and let the other contestants register their own outrage. Instead of going quickly to Zeke to get his reaction in the hopes of inciting an explosive back and forth, Probst gave the attacked party time to compose himself and his thoughts. And instead of allowing Varner off the hook once the player attempted to justify his actions, Probst famously told him “you can’t unring the bell.” Once again, Probst provided a road map on how to handle a disgusting personal attack without turning it into a salacious sideshow.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate what a remarkable job Probst did in dealing with this is to listen to what the man who was so devastatingly impacted by it thinks about how it was handled. “Jeff Probst manages that near impossibility for a reality television host,” says Zeke Smith. “He never loses a moment and he never loses his humanity. Probst played conductor to one of the scariest nights of my life — the night I was outed. Throughout the evening, I felt safe under his leadership, an impressive feat considering he allowed me to collect my thoughts — not peppering with questions — and opened the door for my voice to be heard when I chose to speak. What could’ve been a tragedy and a circus became a moment that changed hearts and minds. I credit that feat to Probst.” (To see Probst’s classy response to this classless situation see part of the scene below.)
What’s most amazing about Probst is that his marathon Tribal Councils — which can run well over an hour when filmed — are completely unscripted. No note cards to be found here. Not only that, but unlike so many other hosts, he does not wear an IFB earpiece. So not only is he on an island literally, but figuratively as well. There are no producers in his ear feeding him lines or telling him to shift course — it’s all on him. Ask another host to work without a script or note cards or an earpiece safety net and see how they do.
Probst’s reliance on himself goes all the way back to the very first season of the franchise, well before the host also became a producer himself, and eventually, the showrunner calling the shots. Probst told Mark Burnett pretty much on day 1 of season 1 that he needed the trust to work alone and follow his gut and instincts. Burnett agreed and the rest is history. Here’s hoping the Emmys can make some new history with their reality hosting nominations this year and vote Probst back onto the island of nominees.