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We had a chance to check in with the man behind the monster, “Survivor 41” host and executive producer Jeff Probst in the days heading up to the season finale. Let’s see what he had to say about this unique season, the megaton of twists, and the decision to crown a winner on the island…
Gordon Holmes: You promised a monster of a season for 41, and you clearly delivered with a ton of new advantages and gameplay mechanics. Now that you’ve seen everything in action, how does this bode for upcoming seasons? Do you pull back or press the pedal to the floor?
Jeff Probst: Well, when we began designing this new dangerous version of “Survivor” we had one goal in mind – let’s really have fun and expand the “Survivor” box in terms of what is possible. What can we do that we haven’t done before? Which direction can we head that they won’t anticipate? “Survivor” has always been a gritty, raw, unpredictable, high-stakes competition with an emphasis on human behavior. So every twist we do comes from that point of view – how will the players respond?
Once we had our new menu of advantages and twists we had another big decision to make – when, where, and how do we introduce them into the game? Here’s how that works. Before the game begins, we have a big blank white board with a section for every episode. We make a nice hot pot of coffee and start placing different advantages and twists in various episodes. You continue to move things around until slowly the season begins to take shape. In previous seasons of “Survivor,” we would only introduce one or two new twists or advantages in any given season. The big moment in the design of “Survivor 41” came when we realized that the way to change the game in a massive way would be to overload them with everything. All in one season. So that’s what we did.
Future players now have a new understanding of the game and that will give us the flexibility to go any direction we want in terms of what goes into the game and when, because now players know to expect the unexpected. That uncertainty is essential to any season of “Survivor.”
Holmes: What’s the reaction been like to this mega blast of twists?
Probst: We have never gotten so much feedback for any season…ever…and it’s all over the map in a really great way! I love that fans and players have had such a passionate reaction!
Some people hate the new twists, but love that we took away their food. Others think we’re cruel for not giving them food but love the new twists. The night of the “Change History” twist I got texts ranging from “Whoa! That’s so wrong! These players must hate you!” to “I love this twist! I hope Erika changes history!”
I’ve also gotten lots of opinions on me talking directly to camera and our occasional behind the scenes shots – some like the insight, others think it’s too much. Oh and lots of people hate my covid hair. So there’s also that.
I definitely understand that there are lots of ways to produce “Survivor.” And if you had another team doing this show it would be totally different. New twists are designed to throw players and fans for a loop. We know fans enjoy playing along from home by asking themselves “What would I do in this situation?” But you can only get those moments from introducing new ideas and new ideas can seem complicated at first glance.
It’s the same for us from a producing standpoint. In fact, one of the ways we know we’re onto an interesting twist is when it requires us to s-l-o-w-l-y walk through every layer of the idea and follow every tentacle to see all the ways the twist might impact the game.
“Survivor” has a history of some big, bold and often controversial ideas. But they’re only controversial because we have fans who care deeply about the show. Nothing makes me happier than a response. There isn’t a single twist, advantage, or theme that has been universally loved. There are still fans who hate immunity idols. I get it. They have a strong opinion about how “Survivor” should be played.
I will share that a lot of former players were hinting strongly that the show was becoming easy to predict in terms of what, when, and where things were most likely to happen. We listened and we agreed. In response, we promised a new unpredictable season and that’s what we endeavored to deliver!
Holmes: A concern I have is that explaining all of these twists is taking away from getting to see the players interact with each other.
Probst: The single most surprising reaction to me regarding “Survivor 41” is from fans and players who say it takes away from the social game. That is definitely not how we see it. The more dangerous and unpredictable the game, the more solid your social relationships have to be. Just ask Deshawn. If he felt comfortable in his alliance he would have never participated in the Do Or Die immunity challenge. When there is uncertainty you are forced to rely on your relationships. The more uncertainty the more relationships you need. “Are we good? Am I in trouble?” Players who do not understand this are doomed to fail.
As for the future, it’s way too early to draw any conclusions about this new dangerous version. We’re just getting started. More fun to come when “Survivor 42” premieres in the Spring… and remember, when we shot “Survivor 42” they had not seen anything from “Survivor 41,” so they were coming in just as blind as the players from this season.
Holmes: By my count we’ve got nine pretty major twists that were unveiled this season…
- Earning Your Flint
- Prisoner’s Dilemma
- The Beware Advantage – Triple Immunity Idol Activation Quotes
- Shot in the Dark Die
- Earn Your Way into the Merge
- Do or Die
- Knowledge Is Power
- Final Five Being Sent to a New Island
How likely are we to see them again?
Probst: I think most everything on this list will remain a part of the future of Survivor in one way or another.
For instance, the Shot In The Dark is a really interesting format twist from a gameplay point of view. But it’s still in its infancy in terms of players learning when and how best to utilize it. I don’t ever anticipate it being used a lot because the price tag (you can’t vote) is very high. But the mere threat that it might be used is where its power comes from because it impacts the behavior and actions of the other players.
The Beware Advantage is another twist that is very new and offers lots of potential. The idea at the core of any Beware Advantage is simple: it comes with risk. In the old version of “Survivor” if you looked hard you might find an advantage and that was all you had to do. You had power. Not anymore! Now there is massive risk for anything you earn. So, if you want the reward you have to take the risk. As we saw with Genie this season, the fear is real. The risk of losing her vote was too high so she didn’t take it. Shan was in a better spot with her social game so the risk didn’t feel as big to her so she grabbed it. We have lots of ideas about how to use Beware Advantages in the future.
The big picture idea of “earning everything” whether it’s flint, the merge, or an advantage will definitely remain for the near future. And for the more controversial twists like Change History and Do Or Die… it remains to be seen!
Holmes: Heading into the finale, I’m ranking the players in this order (meaning, each person will likely beat everyone below them).
I know we’ve got a lot of game left to play, but based on how things look headed into the Wednesday’s show, how do you think I’m doing?
Probst: It’s a fun way to approach the final five and I respect it because there is no hiding who you think has played a strong game and a weak game. And I know from your past predictions that you’re pretty good at this!
Holmes: That’s debatable.
Probst: One thing I’ve learned over the many years of “Survivor” is that I am a terrible predictor of who is going to win. I think I’ve picked just one winner correctly and that was Wendell. Another thing I’ve learned is that with rare exceptions, every single player firmly believes that if they can get to the final three, they can win the game. They don’t always admit it, but I know from our interviews that they believe it. So I look at your list from the point of view of the players. I’m certain Ricard is saying ‘You’re damn right!” And Heather is saying “Really… nobody?”
But I will say this – if you make it 23 days in this new version of “Survivor,” then you have earned it, regardless where you finish.
I also have to say that I loved this group of players. I love everything about them. They took on a totally new game and they attacked it. “Survivor 41” was one of the most difficult, unpredictable, and fast paced games we’ve ever played.
This group of players launched us into a new era of “Survivor.” I mean come on, when was the last time we had this many new, memorable, dynamic and likable players in one season? I think it’s easy to take players for granted but I never do. I have such respect for anyone brave enough to take on this adventure and let us watch them do it. And then they have to deal with all the noise on social media with people criticizing everything from the way they talk or the color of their shirt. It’s not an easy journey but they do it because the experience speaks to something in their soul.
Holmes: And one last twist…the final votes are going to be read on the island! The last time this happened it was because of a tie vote. What encouraged you to do it again?
Probst: The decision to read the votes in the jungle was one of the few changes of “Survivor 41” that was not a creative decision. We had to make the decision way back in April when we were in production. At that time there was still major uncertainty with Covid.
We couldn’t be sure that we would be able to get a stage and bring in a big audience for our normal live finale. And as much fun as I had doing the “Winners At War” finale from my garage, (all of it powered by only two ethernet cables) we didn’t want to do that again!
Once we made the decision, we got very excited at the prospect and the risk of revealing the winner in the jungle. Then we realized we could also do something we’d never done before – a “Survivor After Show” that would allow us to have a really candid conversation with the players while they were still in game mode.
So, as you’ll see in the finale, we brought in champagne and pizza and had a really honest, open and fun conversation with the final three and the jury. I loved it!
Don’t miss the season finale of “Survivor 41,” Wednesday, December 15, 2021 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS!