‘Survivor’ Host Jeff Probst on the ‘Game Changers’ Theme, Idols, Twists, and More

‘Survivor’ Host Jeff Probst (CBS)

QUICK NOTE: The good folks at XFINITY sent me deep into the Fijian wilderness to bring you an exclusive look at “Survivor: Game Changers.” While I was there I conducted interviews with “Survivor” host Jeff Probst and the entire 20-person cast. I also captured exclusive photos and other behind-the-scenes tidbits. So, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for up-to-the-minute updates.

Gordon Holmes: Alright, “Game Changers.”
Jeff Probst: (Laughs)
Holmes: I can already feel the Internet getting pissed off.
Probst: Why?
Holmes: It took me a while to figure this out. And what I came up with is…Major League Baseball has 30 All-Stars a year. They only have a handful of Game Changers. I’m thinking Babe Ruth, I’m thinking Jackie Robinson.
Probst: Interesting.
Holmes: I love me some Tai and Hali, but that term seems very grandiose for how their initial runs went.
Probst: I hear your point. When you hear “Game Changers” you think these are people who changed the game dramatically. My feeling about “Survivor” has always been, most moves aren’t going to work, but you have to have the courage to make a move. That’s who these people are. We could have called this season “Move Makers” or whatever, but it seemed like “Game Changers” because the game changes as a result of moves. You have to be willing to make those moves. And there are definitely people here whose moves have not worked. They’re still game changers to me. I guess you’re going to have to look at it through my filter which is having the courage to try something without any certainty that it will work. Some of them make big moves, some of them make quiet moves, some of them make moves that work, some of them make moves that don’t. But, they were all willing to make a move. And I think if you look back historically at the majority of players, it’s not even close the amount that didn’t make any moves. They just hoped that something happened to someone else.
Holmes: Is a way to look at this…hold on… OK, Kelley Wentworth didn’t have much of a chance to do anything her first time around, but you knew she had that potential in her?
Probst: A hundred percent. I think you’re on to something good here, Gordon. We have the insight into having spent not just 39 days, but hundreds of hours with these people. I always bring this up; there were two people that wanted Amber Brkich back; it was me and Lynne (Spillman). People say, “I don’t see it.” Well, I see it. There’s a subtle gameplay in Amber that was overlooked by a lot of people. I see that in Ciera Eastin. Her biggest thing people remember is her yelling for people to play the game, she voted out her mom, she forced a rock draw. That’s a girl that willing to make a move. She hasn’t made a great move yet, but she’s making moves.

Holmes: What’ve we got as far as twists this season?
Probst: Well, we’re splitting into three tribes after the second episode. That will really mess up the game. And it’s one of the things that the audience counts on because players come in with these pre-conceived ideas, “I’m going to lock in an alliance on day two and I’m going to take it to the end.” Until we split up the tribes and you don’t know if you’re ever going to see that person again. It forces you to reevaluate. And it rarely fails. I know I promised my loyalty to someone else, but they’re not here anymore. “Survivor” is not that complicated in terms of the twists we do. It’s just the impact of those twists that is devastating. You get the odd colored buff and you’re sent to Exile Island. “Oh man, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Nope, it’s the luck of the draw. You might be done.

Holmes: Any tricks planned for the idols this season?
Probst: What we’re doing with idols this season is something we’ve never done before which is; every idol that is placed is inconsistent. Usually there’s a theme to how you find idols. This season is, the theme is there is no theme. You might find one idol in a very traditional way, you might find another idol at Tribal.
Holmes: Interesting, this sounds like it’ll curb the problem of someone figuring out the drop style and then having that advantage when an idol is replaced.
Probst: Exactly. And if we go deep enough, we have a long list of where they might show up. It just matters how often they get played. Because as you know, if they hold on to the idols or they don’t find them, then sometimes they aren’t reintroduced. So, we have a cool, long list, but there’s no consistency. That’s going to throw people off.

Holmes: “Kaoh Rong” just ended, and there’s been a lot of talk about a juror’s responsibility. You don’t say vote for the person who made the biggest moves or vote for the person who’s the best at challenges or vote for the person you like the most. You just say, “Vote.”
Probst: If there’s one flaw in our game, it’s that the jury all lives together as the game continues and they can influence each other. They can influence each other by spreading lies that aren’t even true. Someone gets voted out and they can decide to sabotage the remaining players. They can tell a lie to the jury and taint the vote. And it drives me nuts. But, I also have to remind myself that the jury has experienced the game in their own way. I’m experiencing it my way. And I don’t have a vote, and the audience doesn’t have a vote. But what can you do with the jury? The only thing we can do is try to find ways to hold the jury more accountable. It’s something that I’m working on, but I haven’t figured it out yet.
Holmes: The players are in lockdown before the game. They occupy the same space, but they’re not allowed to talk. Is it just too long to have someone on lockdown for two-and-a-half weeks?
Probst: Yeah. It’s just too long.
Holmes: If you and I are playing the game and you vote me out. Right now there is nothing stopping me from telling the other jurors that you were making racist comments, sexist comments, anything.
Probst: “Survivor” is a microcosm of life. Some people say, “No, it’s not. It’s a gameshow. It’s contrived, you put people on an island, there are always cameras around.” But human nature is the same no matter where you are. And when you’re stripped to your core, you’re left only with yourself. You get desperate. Your truth comes out. But, the one thing that doesn’t change, in the game, in the office, is the politics of being a human are always at play. And if there is someone who is jealous of you because you got a promotion they think they should have had, there’s every chance that they start dropping little social bombs to the boss. I just heard he was partying too much, I hear he’s mean to his children. That’s the way it goes. That’s the part of me that says you can’t control the vote because it’s a social game. But, I have to say, with the exceptions of “Kaoh Rong,” we’ve had a string of juries who have done a wonderful job of rewarding the winner even if the winner is the one who betrayed them. So, I’m optimistic that the people who are voted out of the game respect it enough to give it to the person who played the best.

Holmes: A lot of my friends have kids who watch “Survivor.” Now, it isn’t necessarily children’s programming, but there’s adventure and fun games and you can see the appeal. There have been quite a few instances of bullying on the show recently. If I’m writing a fiction story, my bully is getting some comeuppance. “Survivor” does not always work like that.
Probst: Nothing has excited me as much in the last six or seven years than the amount of kids who are watching “Survivor.” Nothing comes close. And we make this show for families. That is a known fact out here. I’m constantly saying, “Imagine a ten year old.” The challenge has to be exciting, underwater shots, dramatic facial expressions, and it has to be easy enough to understand for a kid watching. So, when it comes to something like bullying, I actually am glad that these things happen because I think they’re teaching moments. The way the world works, sometimes the bully does win. In Kaoh Rong when we had Jason and Scot and Alecia, what parents said to me was, “We sat with our kids and asked them ‘What would you do?’ What would you do if your friend was a bully? What would you do if it was your friend that was getting picked on?’” I love it. I love that “Survivor” shows the way the world works. I love that “Survivor” shows that a nerd like Cochran can rise above and claim the prize and a guy like Ozzy can dive down 20 feet and catch a fish with a spear. All of these things are possible. You can be a girl who comes from the city and loves computers like Aubry and make it to the end. You can be Cirie who gets up off the couch in her forties and says, “I want to give it a try.” I get so excited by “Survivor.” I feel like somehow my life ended up exactly as it should be and I’m so proud of the stories we tell because they’re honest. The good guy doesn’t always win.

Holmes: Who’s gonna win this whole thing?
Probst: Well, I have a few thoughts. Cirie is a favorite for me. I think the audience would love to see her win. If Cirie makes it deep, it probably means that Sandra is somewhere behind. Varner might be in there with them. I think those old-school type of players might get together and say, “Look, we have no kind of chance against the younger kids unless we take over.” And they have to trust that no matter what happens, no matter what tribe they find themselves in, they need to stay true to each other. If not, I’m putting my money on Ciera. I really want to be like Ciera. I want to be courageous enough to be someone who says, “I’m going for broke.” And not just talk it, but actually show my kids this is how you win. You look for the fastball and you swing. And if it’s a curveball, you’re out. But if it’s down the middle and you keep your eye on the ball and you connect. But, don’t play for a single. Don’t hope for a walk. That’s (expletive deleted). I’d play hard on “Survivor” every (expletive deleted) day.

Holmes: Who’s going to go home early?
Probst: You’ve got to believe Tony is in trouble because he’s so strong in his bravado. But, I don’t know what the gameplay is going to be. I’d hope the game players would get rid of who they think are the weakest players. But honestly Gordon, I really don’t have any idea. I think you could make six or seven pitches for how this season could go. Troyzan could be at the end or he could be the first one off. Tai would seem to be in trouble, or is that a guy that you drag to the end.
Holmes: I always say; “‘Survivor’ is Jeff Probst dumping out a bowl of marbles. They’re never all going to go the same place twice.”
Probst: That’s great. I love that.

Holmes: I don’t just come out here to interview twenty contestants. I come out here to get those twenty contestants ready for the game.
Probst: (Laughs) Love it. I can’t wait.
Holmes: One of the ways we did it this time is called, “The Best Defense.”
Probst: (Laughs)
Holmes: You and I arrive on the beach on day one and I want you gone. I’ll give you some of the ways I’m going to try to accomplish that and you have to defend against them.
Probst: Got it.
Holmes: Probst is a likable guy, this crew seems to dig him. I don’t want to sit next to him in front of a jury. Let’s get rid of him now while we still can.
Probst: Guys, I just overheard Holmes talking about me. And I’ll say this; I own everything he said. I like to think that the crew likes me. I like to think that people enjoy me on this show. But if you’re going to let that guy come in and sully my reputation? That’s a guy I don’t want around. I’m owning my stuff. I’m willing to play with you, and if you’re going to vote me out because I’m a nice guy, that’s (expletive deleted). I say we take Holmes out right now. Because he’s going to do it to all of you. He’s got his little traps for everyone.

Holmes: Probst is the producer for a popular TV show that has been on the air for 40 years.
Probst: (Laughs)
Holmes: I’m sure this guy is loaded. He doesn’t need the million. Let’s send him packing.
Probst: Again, I heard Gordon talking about money being a factor. I definitely have plenty of money. I’ve done well from “Survivor” and I’m not embarrassed about it. I’m out here to win. But I want to ask you, do you want to beat the best? Because one thing I am good at is social politics. I’m as good as anyone out here. And the game has advanced to a point where a schlub like Holmes ends up here and he’s got nothing. He’s a used car salesman. He’s trying to sell you a Ford when you know I’ll get you a Tesla. And I don’t want to defend anything else. You should come hard at me. But, let’s get rid of the drab first and then let’s play.

Holmes: You ever see “Two and a Half Men?” Probst was on it in his birthday suit and he looked like a million bucks. You want to go toe-to-toe with that guy for individual immunity? I don’t.
Probst: OK, on this one I’ll be honest. I am 54 years old. I know you’re surprised to hear that, but it’s true. I’m the oldest person out here. And I have run a lot of these challenges when we rehearse them, and I’m not going to lie…I rarely win. I want to win and I will work hard to win, but I give you my word right now, if I win more than two challenges, I will stop competing in them. I will give up and not compete. You can all vote me out. I will literally say to Probst, the other Probst…whoever will be hosting.
Holmes: (Laughs)
Probst: (Laughs) I will to say to Rove McManus who is now hosting, I will literally say to “Boston” Rob who is now hosting, that I will not compete anymore. Because if I can win two, I’ll go home a happy man.
Holmes: That’s the strategy? Quit after you win two?
Probst: No, if you want to vote me out, vote me out. Because honestly I never thought I’d win two. Whether or not I’d really sit out at the point depends on where I am in the game. If I’m strong with my alliance and you want me to stick around? Are you sure? Alright, I’ll stick around for you.
Holmes: Outside-of-the-box thinking, that’s a Tony move.
Probst: It’s Tony Robbins. Change your state. I just went from “I can kick your ass” to “I trust you.” And here’s the real truth. The humanitarian in me knows what it’s like to win. I didn’t think I would. I am honestly shocked. That necklace felt great, I’d like to feel it again. But Hali, I’d rather you have a shot at winning. And I think you’re going to love how it feels. I still want to beat you, but I want you to have the experience. Just don’t vote me out for that. If you vote me out for something else, that’s fine. We should all do it. Once we win we should step down so we can all have that feeling and control this game.
Holmes: Interesting. And that jerk Holmes has won eight immunity challenges in a row. He’s a victory hog.
Probst: (Laughs) That number is impressive. But Holmes…you know what it is…this is the tricky part. Holmes is the guy who never got laid. And he’s trying to take out someone who’s more popular than him. Which is not true if he knew my life. Holmes is an easy guy to get out. He’s married, he’s got his hot chick, so he’s good to go. Little does he know she’s going to leave him in six-to-seven years because he’s been hunched over the computer for too long.
Holmes: My impending divorce might earn me some sympathy votes.
Probst: (Laughs) Exactly! Get rid of him!

Holmes: A little bird told me the first challenge involves digging. How much do you want Caleb to give that a second shot?
Probst: (Laughs) I didn’t even think of that.
Holmes: Liar.
Probst: (Laughs) I didn’t! But he’ll do it. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Don’t miss the two-hour season premiere of “Survivor: Game Changers,” Wednesday March 8, 2017 at 8 p.m. ET.

Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes

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