There was a time Jeff Probst could not imagine doing what he will on Wednesday, being on hand as host for the start of a 44th season of “Survivor.”
That’s not simply because of the transitory nature of television, where a 44th season of anything is a rarity, even a program that created a sensation when it first aired on CBS in the summer of 2000.
In those early days, there was a restlessness about Probst. He’d studied screenwriting, acted and wrote and directed a well-received indie film in 2001. He tried a short-lived talk show. He admits “I had a chip on my shoulder about being called a ‘host.'”
Yet as series creator Mark Burnett began stepping away, Probst added “producer” to his title and has since ascended to the level of “showrunner” — industry lingo that means he’s in charge of everything.
At age 61, he’s all in, an evangelist for “Survivor.”
“I have never been so excited to be part of the show,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I hope it’s apparent. I hope it’s clear that I’m really into ‘Survivor.’”
It remains a marvelously-designed game, one that tests survival skills in a forbidding — if lovely — environment along with the social and scheming skills to remain standing at the end to collect the $1 million prize. Even if one cast is a drag, “one of the show’s greatest strengths is that every season hits a reset button,” said Dalton Ross, executive editor at large at Entertainment Weekly and a veteran chronicler of the show.
So it can, um, survive a scandal like a player being kicked off in 2019 after being accused of inappropriately touching young women or tweaks that don’t work, like the “fire tokens” that were introduced and abandoned after one season.
Other new ideas, like a hidden immunity idol or the “David vs Goliath” season that Probst really loved, freshen the show as it adheres to a basic structure.
Producers were also ordered by CBS to increase diversity, which Probst said has added to the show’s richness. The 18 castaways for the new season include five Black contestants, three Latinos and an Asian American.
“People that don’t watch ‘Survivor,’ I think they may mistake it for some sort of survivalist’s show or they label it with this idea that it’s just a reality show,” Probst said. “When, really, ‘Survivor’ is one of the biggest adventures you can ever go on, either as a player or a viewer.”
As Probst became more involved in how the show was put together, there was a clear difference in how he did his job onscreen, Ross said.
“Jeff started to put more opinion and personality into his hosting,” he said. “Up to that point, it was more of a master of ceremonies role. You realized he could be the eyes and ears of the audience and can speak for the audience. It was one of the most important changes he made as a host. It made him an element in the game that the players had to contend with.”
“Survivor” has settled on Fiji as a permanent set after bouncing around for several years to different locations. The jungle is a character in itself. High-definition photography and drones makes things more visually appealing than ever, Ross said.
Probst demurs when asked his opinion of the best player ever, and admits some of the seasons start to run together. He’d lose a “Survivor” trivia contest, he said.
“I will see an early cut of an episode, and I can’t remember who was voted out, even though I was the one at Tribal Council who snuffed out their torch,” he said.
And, yes, he’s excited about the new season, calling it one of the most entertaining groups of players the show has put together in a while.
“It’s intoxicating,” he said. “I honestly believe one of the reasons we’re still on the air is that it’s compelling. If people watch the first episode of ‘Survivor’ 44,’ I don’t know how you’re not going to watch the second episode. You’re going to be hooked.”
Starting Wednesday, Probst will host a podcast with show producer Brittany Crapper and fan Jay Wolff that will air after the conclusion of each episode. “On Fire with Jeff Probst” will an insider’s look at how the show is put together, he said.
CBS doesn’t want to spoil the magic, but deepen the relationship with fans, he said.
With broadcast television struggling for viewers, “Survivor” is a dependable performer for CBS and is one of those rare family shows that people of all ages can enjoy. The show seems destined to be around for awhile and hard to imagine without the man who’s “not just the face of ‘Survivor’ but the pulse of ‘Survivor’ as well,” Ross said.
Asked if he would want to stay with the show as long as it’s on the air, Probst at first calls the question impossible.
Then he quickly answers.
“At this point, yes,” he said. “Really, yes. Because I’ve built my life around ‘Survivor’ and I’ve fashioned all of my creative ideas through ‘Survivor.’ Every single conversation, book I read, podcast I listen to, every single thing … will get filtered through my ‘Survivor’ filter.”