Jeff Probst on his 'most personal and powerful' Survivor moment ever
Each week, host Jeff Probst will answer a few questions about the latest episode of Survivor: Winners at War. Here, he weighs in on bringing out whole families of loved ones, letting players on the Edge of Extinction also get a visit, the impromptu Tribal Council thank you hug, something we never did see, and what’s coming up next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So many loved ones, and so many loved ones questions. Let’s start with where the idea came from for each of the players to not just have one loved one visit, but their children as well?
JEFF PROBST: One of the underlying goals of this season was to make it a celebration of everything we love about Survivor, including the amazing players who have given so much over the past twenty years. So when it came time for the loved ones, we started thinking about the history of these players from the eyes of our audience. When Rob first played in 2002, he was single, then he met Amber in 2004, they got married and together have four kids.
Parvati also started out single, then met another former Survivor player, got married and they have a new baby. In the years since Kim played, she had married and given birth to three kids. All these beautiful Survivor families, but our audience has never met them. The more we went down the list, the more excited we got with the possibility. What if we could have the entire family visit? It would be the best thank you we could offer the players. A once in a lifetime experience with their entire family. Something they would never forget. Something they would talk about for the rest of their lives. Once that emotion took over, it quickly gained a ton of momentum.
You decided to allow the players on Edge of Extinction to also receive a visit from their families as well. Was there any debate and discussion in terms of whether you should also give them the visit, or was that always a given?
The idea of extending the love ones visit to the players on the Edge of Extinction came within seconds of the original idea. There was never a question we should do it. I remember very clearly the excitement as it spread around the creative team. You have to remember that as a production team, we are grateful to the players. Survivor is still on the air after 20 years because of all of the courageous and entertaining players who have let us watch them take on this crazy adventure. But we never really get to show them how we feel. So this was a perfect opportunity to do so, and we knew the audience would enjoy seeing the families behind the players they have invested in for 20 years.
But there was a slight problem. It was going to be a massive expense. Television shows have budgets, and you have to produce your show within that budget. This was way beyond any loved one visit we had ever done before. So I called Andre Viljoen, the CEO of Fiji Airways, and asked if they would like to partner with us. He didn’t even hesitate in saying yes. Fiji Airways has been so generous to Survivor.
And this is a great example of the relationship we have established with the country of Fiji. We are partners. We endeavor to do our very best to show off the beauty of their islands and culture, which increases tourism. In return, they have been very supportive in helping us produce the show. As a side note of interest, when we first plopped down in Fiji, there was essentially no local television crew infrastructure. So, we had to train the local community about how to produce a television show — jobs like grips, camera assists, audio techs, art department. A mere four years later, there is a strong film industry in Fiji. Dozens of TV shows and movies shoot there ever year and Fiji now has a very experienced and impressive local production crew to support it.
In one of the coolest behind-the-scenes moments we’ve ever seen, at the very end of the episode we saw the jurors at Tribal Council coming over and hugging you while thanking you for allowing them to see their families. What did that moment mean to you, and was there any debate and discussion about whether in include that in the episode since that’s not the type of thing we normally see?
In terms of expressing how I personally feel about Survivor players, the loved one gesture comes the closest to expressing my truth. I am in awe and forever indebted to everyone who has ever played the game. But that is not always clear. Over the course of the 39 days, things can get emotional between me and the players. There are perceived power imbalances in our roles, some players feel more or less liked by me, the list is long. By the time a season is finished, I often feel the players see me more as an adversary than an ally. And I understand that perception, as they are fighting every single day to stay alive and I am often seen as one more annoying obstacle.
But that’s not how I see them. I see them as examples of what is possible if you’re willing to risk. I see them as teachers if you’re willing to listen. I see them as humans who are seeking something, and Survivor is the experience they have chosen to find it. So, to finally get to your question… the moment when the jury came over and hugged me was the most personal and powerful moment I’ve ever had with a group of players. It moves me to this day, because it best represents the exchange of energy I always seek.
We always intended to include it in the show, but, as always, time dictates what makes the show and what doesn’t. We got lucky this time. But we have had to lose so many other fantastic moments this season due to time. One of my favorite moments involved a role reversal between me and the players. It happened at the start of an immunity challenge. I took back the two pieces of the tribe immunity idol, and walked back to the pedestal to say, “Once again, immunity is up for grabs!” But I couldn’t get the pieces back together properly. I kept trying different versions, but they wouldn’t line up. The players immediately started mocking me! “Probst is reallllllllly struggling. Puzzles are not his thing! You need to pick it UP!!! This is when you have to dig deep!” It was a really funny moment of payback, but as we had to trim the episode for time, ultimately the bigger story of the two million dollar game won out.
With everyone now self-isolating and in many cases separated from their loved ones, what do you think it means for this episode to air now?
I think it’s rather serendipitous that our biggest and most emotional loved one episode airs at a time when we all need it the most.
We’ve still got a few other episodes to get to before the finale so what can you tell us about next week?
Am I dreaming? Can one season really be this good? Yes, it can! And next week, yet another layer is added to the world of Survivor capitalism.
Enjoy an exclusive deleted scene from this week’s episode above, and make sure to check out our full episode recap as well as the winners each pitching an idea for a new twist or theme for the show. And for more behind the scenes Survivor scoop, photos, and videos, follow Dalton on both Twitter and Instagram.
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!"