As Survivor launches season 37, we look at why the show has lasted so long and what could potentially end its epic run.
Jeff Probst thought his Survivor career was coming to a close. The year was 2005 and as Probst sat in the restaurant at the St. Regis hotel in New York City, he contemplated his future as the host of America’s longest-running network reality show. He had recently returned from Palau where he and the crew had wrapped production on the franchise’s 10th season and he knew it was a good one.
But he also was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel that was his CBS contract. He would be free after season 12, and there were many reasons to snuff his own torch at that time. While Probst was the face of the show and had begun to exert more control both on screen and off — injecting more of his personality beginning in season 5 (Survivor: Thailand) and becoming a producer in season 7 (Survivor: Pearl Islands) — he was also burnt out and getting restless.
Filming the All-Stars season had been an emotionally grueling process, and the host found himself frustrated as many contestants who had arrived as nobodies in their initial outing now returned as wannabe celebrities with attitude to spare. While Probst loved what the show captured on camera that season, he didn’t love the day-to-day experience, especially with so much more out there he wanted to do.
Back in 2001, Probst had written and directed a surprisingly taut thriller about a winning lottery ticket titled Finder’s Fee that starred James Earl Jones, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and a young Canadian actor named Ryan Reynolds. He would later go on to direct another film (2014’s Kiss Me with Sarah Bolger, Jenna Fischer, and John Corbett), shoot a pilot for another CBS unscripted show (2010’s Live for the Moment), host a talk show (2012’s The Jeff Probst Show) and co-write numerous books for kids.
Suffice it to stay, Probst is not a guy that likes to stand still, so why would he stay for more than 12 seasons of a reality show, especially when he saw scripted stars on his own network making considerably more money, even though he was delivering blockbuster ratings each and every week? The host at that point believed season 12 would be his last. The question was, could the show survive without him?
Fast forward 13 years. Survivor’s 37th season — David vs. Goliath — premieres Sept. 26 on CBS. The show still wins Wednesday nights in total viewers, and often in the 18-49 demo that advertisers covet as well. Survivor appears to be going nowhere and neither does Jeff Probst.
CBS eventually backed up the money truck after season 12, signing Probst for four more seasons — then did so again after season 16. But something equally important happened along the way as well — Probst went from host to host/producer to host/executive producer to host/showrunner. He’s more than just the face of the franchise, he is the heart and pulse of it as well. When I asked Probst a few months ago whether he would still be hosting Survivor without some form of creative control, he told me flat-out that he would not.
And as Probst’s input and power have increased, so has his emotional investment in the job. You watch Probst on location during filming and you see a guy who is tapped into every single aspect of production and the experience. You see the joy on his face when something goes well. You see the anguish when something doesn’t. While years ago Probst may have had one foot out the door as he considered other career options, he’s now thrown all his chips into the middle of the table. (He also remains the best reality host on the planet.)
So if Probst is locked and loaded, the question becomes: How long can Survivor last? Season 38 — which will air in early 2019 — is already in the can. Casting is already underway for season 39. And Probst and Survivor Svengali Mark Burnett have already talked about plans to “do something big” for season 40.
Season 40 is a ridiculous and absurd number when you think about the fact that Burnett and Probst originally figured the show would be a fad and fizzle out by season 3. But the reason the program is still so successful also explains why Survivor displays no signs of going away. While there are numerous reasons explaining the series’ longevity (and you can read about 35 of them here), the biggest advantage the show has over traditional scripted fare is the reset button.
While you may hear many of those same sayings — “Come on in, guys!,” “The tribe has spoken,” “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” — over and over, every season of Survivor is unique. And if you don’t like one season, no problem! Just wait, there will be a completely new one in a few months. It’s an infallible formula because unlike countless other programs like Desperate Housewives, Glee, and Scandal that burned super hot and then cooled considerably, Survivor keeps chugging along. When a scripted series goes bad, it is almost impossible to get that good mojo back. On Survivor, it is very much possible. Probable, in fact. That enables viewers to give the show a few mulligans along the way, knowing that if they don’t like what they see now, it may very well change soon.
The other, less obvious reason for Survivor’s success is the fact that is has a constantly regenerating audience in the form of younger viewers. Put as simply as possible, kids love Survivor. The competition mixed with the adventure and twist-tastic nature is irresistible. So while other older viewers may check out, there is always a steady stream of newer, younger viewers ready to check in.
And often they bring some of those checked out people back. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine that had stopped watching Survivor have now come back to it because of their kids. (I can’t tell you because I did not keep track like a complete loser, but I assure you, it’s, like, a lot.) Survivor — and other reality competition shows like The Voice — are the closest thing we still have left to actual family viewing. As long as people keep having kids and people keep watching television, then Survivor has potential future viewers waiting in the wings, which is not something you can necessarily say about Empire.
Oh, and there is also the fact that the show is still insanely good! While super-fans may quibble and argue about the merit of particular seasons, almost all will go out of their way to offer a disclaimer — as Hollywood big-shot and current contestant Mike White recently did — that the worst season of Survivor is still better than any other show on television.
And even in those down seasons, there are still absolute gems to be found. Survivor: Thailand had the infamous fake merge and one of the most grueling final challenges ever. Survivor: Fiji featured the Yau-Man and Dreamz car deal gone bad. Survivor: One World had my pick for the best winner of all-time in Kim Spradlin. And last spring’s Survivor: Ghost Island — a season I liked more than many others — had one of the show’s best episodes ever as Domenick and Chris Noble went into ego overdrive doing everything to get the other out. It was positively electric and some of the best editing the show has ever put on screen. And it happened in season 36.
So if the series still has the ability to excite and thrill, and the series still has the ability to regenerate, and the series still has the ability to pull in young viewers, then why would Survivor ever go off the air? It brings us back to the first two words of this article: Jeff Probst.
While the host/showrunner has been a steady Eddie in the pilot’s seat for a long time now, the question of his preferred longevity begins to come a bit into focus again when you wonder how long the 56-year-old will want to continue dealing with cyclones, brutal heat, being knocked into by giant waves, and some of the dingbats that comprise your typical reality show cast.
I asked Probst that question in May in terms of how long he wants to stay on the show and he answered as if he saw no end in sight. “I don’t think any of us have looked at the show that way in so long,” said Probst. “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.”
Probst leaving is the only thing I can see in the near future that could potentially bring the show down. And even then, if ratings are still strong and money is still being made — and Survivor has done a good job of keeping production costs down by setting up shop permanently in Fiji where they receive tremendous tax breaks and credits — then one would assume CBS would at the very least investigate the possibility of finding a new host to keep the show on the air. Names of past winners like Parvati Shallow and Boston Rob Mariano are often floated by fans as possible replacements should that ever happen, but then there are these words to consider by the man that made the show such a hit in the first place, Mark Burnett. “Really, the big thing about Survivor is Jeff,” Burnett told me. “Jeff is Survivor and that’s the reason the show does so well.” Ah, but for how long?
For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.