SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Each week, host Jeff Probst will answer a few questions about the latest episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols. This week, he breaks down the season premiere to reveal why he went missing, how production works with Sandra and Boston Rob, Kellee standing up for herself, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So a lot of Survivor twists out of the gate this season, including no marooning! Where were you hiding on day 1 and what went into the decision to drop the tribes right off at their beach with no pomp or circumstance to officially welcome them to the season?
JEFF PROBST: When it comes to Survivor creative, we usually follow the philosophy that form follows function, so here’s how it came to be that I was not a part of the marooning. First, we had the idea to bring back Sandra and Rob as mentors. Next came the title of the season: Island of the Idols. That led us to the idea that players may suspect that there is a separate island and it’s full of hidden immunity idols.

We liked this possibility and decided that if I wasn’t at the marooning it would create even more uncertainty and force them to give more weight to the only information they had, which is: This season is called “Island Of The Idols” … so it must mean something. And as a second layer, we are always trying to keep the players uneven and force them to adapt to ever changing situations. That is at the very heart of what we try to do every season, so a “host-less” marooning worked on that level as well.

Rob and Sandra greeted their first guest at Island of the Idols with Elizabeth. Tell us about how you structured their role in the game in terms of how much latitude they have to bargain, haggle, and otherwise deal with their visitors.
Great question. Here’s how the relationship with Sandra and Rob evolved from a creative point of view. During pre-production, we involved them in the process and asked them for any ideas or any lessons they thought should be included during the season. We then got the Survivor creative team together and went to work creating the structure for which lesson would play in which episode, what it would entail and what the advantage would be. Once we were on location, we treated Sandra and Rob as on-camera producers. We would write up the idea for the Survivor lesson we were going to feature in the episode, and some suggestions on what they might say, or questions they might ask of the visiting player.

We then met with them off-camera, and walked through the beats of each lesson several times, like a rehearsal. And with each run-through they took our ideas and made it more and more their own. It was amazing to watch. Then the night before each visit, they would stay up late and just walk the beach working it out over and over, so that by the time the player visited, Sandra and Rob knew exactly what they wanted to do and how they wanted to structure the visit.

We gave them a lot of creative freedom because we truly wanted it to be their island. When it came to the advantage, we also gave them a bit of wiggle room to negotiate with the player. For instance, if the advantage was a hidden immunity idol, Sandra and Rob had the flexibility to make it worth one, two or three Tribal Councils. It was up to them. Their goal was to give up as little as possible while trying their best to entice the person to take the lesson. So, if they felt they needed to sweeten the deal to make that happen, they had the authority to make that call.

Like any true Survivor winner, they were very stingy but also a great read of who was going to need a bit more to be persuaded to say yes. It’s also worth noting that we offered to build them a shelter but they were adamant that if they were going to be preaching the life lessons of Survivor to new players, they too had to be living in the same conditions. So when you see a player visit Island of the Idols, that really is the camp where they are living… and they have big plans for expansion!

SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols
Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Let’s say you had gotten that first visit to Sandra and Boston Rob and then had to return back to your tribe. Keeping in mind that others will visit there and learn that you were lying, what would you tell your tribemates?
That was the one thing we were the most curious about: Would players keep it a secret or would they expose the entire thing? I was very impressed that out of the gate, Elizabeth, the first visitor, lied about what she experienced. I would do the same thing. There is no way I would give any other player any kind of advance knowledge of what to expect, especially when I know they will have a chance to play for an advantage.

Survivor is certainly about establishing relationships, but I don’t think there is anything more powerful than information, especially early in the game. It’s one of the few advantages you can get on Survivor. I was very impressed with how easily Elizabeth lied and also that the lie was a bit reminiscent of Ghost Island, which was an interesting choice because it sounds so familiar that it might just be true. And I think every player listening is probably trying to decide if she’s telling the truth or not! As for the concern that another player may go in the future, that’s another reason to lie… because now the two of us know something the others don’t. But hey, I’ve never played, so what do I really know!

Ronnie targeted Elaine early and paid the price with his own life in the game. What’s the lesson to be learned with his early exit?
I have to be honest, I don’t think there’s a lesson, I really don’t. Ronnie is a sharp guy and if we started over and played again he might have a very different result. But if there is a general lesson about first impressions and first moves, maybe it’s this: You can’t win the game on day one, but you can definitely lose the game.

Before we get to next week’s tease, I wanted to offer one more observation about this episode that really speaks to the ongoing relevance of the Survivor format. One of the most significant things happening in our culture is women coming together and using their voices in a very powerful way to create a much needed and celebrated change. In our premiere, we saw that same shifting dynamic play out within the context of the Survivor format where you have a group of strangers who are forced to live together in a makeshift shelter in the jungle while competing against each other for a million-dollar prize.

Almost immediately, some of the women on Dan’s tribe were uncomfortable with his interactions with them. It was so impressive how the women handled the situation. The women made it clear that they would decide if and how it would impact their game. Kellee not only had the confidence and the courage to stand up for herself, she confronted Dan head on with the issue and explained in detail what was bothering her. She remained open to believing he did not intend it, but still let him know very clearly that she would not tolerate it. After the conversation, Dan seemed receptive to learning that he needs to alter his behavior around her and others.

These are the times that I am reminded that Survivor is often a reflection of our culture. And for those readers who aren’t familiar with how Survivor is produced, we always endeavor to give the players as wide a berth as we can, to allow them to create their own society and form their own rules. At the same time, they are on a show where they are monitored and supervised at all times: 24 hours a day for 39 days. If there ever is a situation that we thought was unsafe we would intervene immediately. And at any time, players can come to a producer to make an official complaint.

Okay, hit us up with some intel for next week.
Another fun visit to Island of The Idols that really starts to illustrate the different types of lessons offered from the mentors. Plus… Rob and Sandra aren’t the only idols in the game.

Enjoy an exclusive deleted scene above. Also make sure to read our full premiere episode recap and exit interview with Ronnie. And for more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning $1 million, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "Dig deep!"

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