SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

With Survivor currently celebrating its landmark 40th season, one can’t help wonder if the show has started looking ahead to its next big anniversary: season 50. At least some key people on the program have starting thinking about what would be a momentous occasion. When we asked executive producer Matt Van Wagenen in May 2019 while out on location for Winners at War whether the show would make it to the big 5-0, he was emphatic. “Hell yes!” replied the EP. When we asked challenge producers John Kirhoffer (who has been with the show since season 1) and Chris Marchand, they had the exact same response from each other: “I think we’ll make it to 50.”

However, the one person who is not ready to commit to hitting that magic number is host and showrunner Jeff Probst. Even before the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down society and thrown the availability of season 41 in the fall into doubt, Probst was cagey when asked on location during Winners at War if Survivor would make it to season 50. “I don’t know,” responds Probst. “I will say that there is a complicated math idea on the board in there for [season] 41 or 42 which I’m trying to figure out, but I don’t know.”

Probst does acknowledge the loyalty of Survivor Nation, but says it’s possible that changing winds at CBS could eventually win out. “It also does come down to not just our audience, but network television,” says Probst. “What’s happening? You look at ratings, we’ve been super lucky. Our ratings are holding. Our audience is so frickin’ loyal, man. They hang in there with us. And this is what has happened with Survivor for the last decade. We’re like this [makes straight line with hand], other shows come and they skyrocket and 'Oh, this is the new show,' and [uses other hand to show another line going up, leveling off, and then dropping down] then they do this and they then do this and then they do that. And we just stay like this. We barely drop.”

With steep viewership declines the norm due to fragmented viewership, the rise of streaming platforms, and more entertainment options than ever, Probst points out that staying flat or mild ratings declines — “In television today, that’s like getting a raise. And every year I look at the numbers and I think, the same people are watching. And so our job is deliver the same thing, only very different every time. We must reinvent. We must innovate. We must keep you curious, so you can sit home and think ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to like this. I don’t get the, what’s it called, the Edge of Extinction? Not for me. Island of the Idols? It seems like a little corny deal.’ But we keep doing it, and I feel people say, ‘Okay I’m starting to get it. What are these Fire Tokens again? How do they work?’ Just give it a second. We’re trying it out. We’ll see if it works. So that’s our job. So we can only do that season by season.”

But while Probst tried his best to paint Survivor’s future as a network decision, I told him I believed it was more a Jeff Probst decision, and that the future of the reality show may rest on how much longer the face of the franchise wants to keep at it. So does he want to do Survivor for five more years? “At this point, yes,” says the host. “But I don’t like the pressure being that it’s all on me. That doesn’t feel great. I want to do it because we as a group want to keep doing it and keep finding ways to reinvent it.”

For Probst, it is that constant reinvention and evolution that keeps him excited about a show he has already guided for two decades: “The thing that keeps me up at night is ‘What, are we going to do next?’ It’s why I’m sensitive to the constant criticism of ‘Well, I don’t know if I like that idea. Well, I’m not sure if I like that.’ ‘Cause you want to say, ‘Well, what’s your idea? What should we do?’ And then people pitch and you go, ‘Yeah, here’s why that doesn’t work.’”

The twist Probst is most excited about moving forward is the introduction of Fire Tokens in season 40. “The thing that keeps us going is when we get a hold of a new idea, like the idea of a Fire Token and then the idea of a currency,” he says. “We get excited because we go, a currency, even though it’s not sexy, it’s a foundation. Maybe we can build on that. Maybe the next 10 seasons can be building on now Survivor has a currency. There’s a mayor of Survivor. Oh my God, that guy’s a billionaire on Survivor. He has so many Fire Tokens. But he has no friends. He can’t buy anything. It’s crazy! He literally has all the money, and nobody will work with him! And then you’re once again in this microcosm of society and you’ve got something. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Hopefully they will still be figuring it out in season 50.

To watch Probst discuss the future of Survivor, what the video at the top of the post. 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 a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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