‘Survivor: South Pacific’ Pre-Game Interview: Jeff Probst

The first few days of “Survivor” must be ridiculously stressful for the crew. Everyone has their fingers crossed hoping the castaways are interesting, the challenges are entertaining, and the host’s new shirt color pops.

Fortunately for the start of “Survivor: South Pacific,” it seems like they scored on all three fronts.

I spoke to that host, four-time Emmy winner Jeff Probst, on the first day of shooting and had a chance to get his thoughts on how Redemption Island has been received, the contenders and pretenders in the new cast, and the evolution of his shirts…

Gordon Holmes: “Survivor” took a major leap last season with the addition of the Redemption Island twist. What did you guys learn from the way that changed the show?
Jeff Probst:
I think what we learned from “Redemption Island” is that Janet (Gordon’s mom) should be sent there. Because Janet is a mom who deserves a second chance. It’s not Janet’s fault that Gordon turned out the way he did. Janet, from all accounts, was a great mom who was saddled with an unusually large burden; how to raise this kid? He grows up, he travels the world, he uses his brain for insight, observing human nature and writing about it. But at the end of the day he’s a bit of a grumppopotamus.
Holmes: (Laughing) No idea how to spell that…
Probst: So, I think we should send Janet to Redemption Island and we treat her to a spa-like environment. Hopefully we can make her life a little better than it’s been the past 30-something years.
Holmes: It amazes me how we’ve known each other over the years. We’ve only spent a few days together in Gabon, in Nicaragua, and here and yet you can read me and my life like a book.
Probst: It’s instinct.
Holmes: It’s gotta be why they’ve got you hosting this show.
Probst: It’s primal.

Holmes: Redemption Island?
Oh yeah, I think what we learned from Redemption Island is you can change a format and still have it work. I really like Redemption Island, I like the idea of a second chance. The idea originally came from the question, “How do we keep the characters we like?” Because there’s nothing we can do, This is not “The Apprentice.” Donald Trump is not in charge of who stays and who goes. So we thought if we had this loser’s bracket we could keep people around.
Holmes: What kind of feedback have you received?
Probst: Anytime you deviate from the norm you’re going to have people who say, “Aw man, I don’t like it.” But, I think it’s worth a second chance. I loved it, I heard a lot of people tell me they liked it. If it doesn’t work after this year and we decide it’s a big bust, we’ll go back to “Survivor” of old.
Holmes: The immunity idol wasn’t a huge hit right off the bat, but you tweaked it and now it’s a great addition. Will there be any changes this season to Redemption Island?
Probst: It wasn’t a big hit off of the bat? There are always people who want to say “no” to anything new. Anything. The thing about “Survivor” is it is an evolving game. Exile Island, hidden immunity idols, whatever it is, there’s going to be somebody who complains. Here’s what I believe to be true; the audience doesn’t always know what they want. And I know these words could come back to haunt me, but sometimes you have to kill off your main character. Sometimes you have to shift the show. The show evolves in a new way. I feel like that’s what’s happening with Redemption Island. We’re not abandoning the show, we’re just trying something new.
Holmes: Ralph Kiser, Matt Elrod, Andrea Boehlke, Mike Chiesl…if any one of those people had come back into the game and won it, they’d be the first person in the history of the game to be the sole survivor after having been voted out. Is there any concern that that could taint the legacy of the previous winners?
Probst: If we play this game long enough with Redemption Island in place, somebody will come back from Redemption and win. And you’ll be able to make all kinds of arguments if it was fair that they won it, whether it was as powerful…some will even say it was more impactful because they were voted out, had to win all these duels, and somehow worm their way back into the game. I really don’t think there’s a whole lot to Redemption Island other than people sitting around and saying, “Well, this is kind of different.” I really just see Redemption Island as a fun twist, nothing more than the hidden immunity idol. That’s the game, we twist it up. Next question, Gordon.

Holmes: Alright, I hate to follow up with another tough question, but a big difference we saw this morning was you wearing a green shirt. What was the thought process behind this dramatic change?
The big news that TMZ and everybody seems to want to know about is that I wore…I wore a green shirt. It’s funny…it’s emotional a little bit. It doesn’t mean that the blue shirts and I are over. I’m just trying to expand my world a little bit. I’m trying to get the most I can out of this life. I wanted to wear green…and I don’t regret it.

Holmes: Why are we back in Samoa?
There are a couple of reasons. One, there are only a couple of place you can go in the world right now between political unrest and weather problems. It’s not like there are 50 locations out there screaming for “Survivor.” We require quite a bit. We require a government that works with us. We require isolated islands. And we require an infrastructure that can house 325 people for many months. So, it’s a tall order. Another reason is we feel a kinship with this island community and they suffered a pretty lethal tsunami after we left two years ago. We tried to help out as much as we could, but by bringing the whole show back, you’re bringing in a lot of revenue and employment.

Holmes: Who do you like from this season’s cast?
We have a great cast this season. I know I’ve said that every year, but 70% of the people this year I would be happy with them going to the end. The rest of them? Semhar? She’s in trouble. Stacey? Unfortunately in trouble. I wish that she’d last, but I don’t think she’s going to. Mark the cop, I think he’s in trouble.
Holmes: Who are the favorites?
Probst: Cochran. This little, nerdish kid from Harvard, who straight out of the gate in front of everybody says,  “Hey Probst, could you call me Cochran? Cause I just want to be like all the greats like Donaldson and Mariano and Penner. You call all the greats by their last names.” It seemed like such a little fanboy thing to do, but what he did psychologically was make himself likable. I think he knows what he’s doing and I don’t think there’s any chance he’ll be voted out first. He’s a student of the game and he’s very smart. I also like Rick the cowboy. I love the mustache, I love the hat, I love the belt buckle. And I love that he’s smart enough to know that even though he can fish and build a shelter, he’s holding back. I like Jim Rice as a villain. And even though he may think he’s not a villain…Jim, you’re a villain. On this show, you’re going to come off as a little untrustworthy, but a great interview. From the women, I like Mikayla a lot. She’s a tomboy. I hope she delivers. I hope she doesn’t dry up and fall away. I hope she digs down and fights to stay in this game.
Holmes: What can we expect from Brandon Hantz?
Probst: Brandon Hantz is one of the wild cards. Russell is his uncle and brought him to us, but we vetted him just like we would anyone else. We made sure to ask ourselves if he wasn’t Russell’s nephew, would we want him on the show? And the answer was absolutely. I think he’ll be a fish out of water. He’s young, he hasn’t done a lot of traveling. Here’s the dilemma. I trust him. I think he’s a nice guy. I think he’s a loving husband and a father. But I’m aware that what’s running through his blood is running through Russell’s blood and he could already be playing me.

Survivor: South Pacific” premieres Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

Any Questions about “Survivor: South Pacific”? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes

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