The tribe has spoken, and the ultimate outwit-outplay-outlast Survivor is … Jeff Probst, who’s presided over the groundbreaking game/TV social experiment since the very first episode in 2000. Nearly 20 years and more than 500 torch snuffs later, “I’m still having a blast,” the five-time Emmy winner and executive producer, 58, told Us Weekly exclusively on set in Fiji. “I have a lot of creative freedom, and that’s everything.”
He’s especially excited about Survivor: Winners at War, in which 20 previous champs — including fan favorites “Boston” Rob Mariano and his wife, Amber, Jeremy Collins, Parvati Shallow, Wendell Holland and Sarah Lacina — vie for a whopping $2 million. The 40th season will also incorporate the Edge of Extinction island and in-game currency in the form of fire tokens.
Just before the start of the second tribal council in Fiji, Probst exclusively talked to Us about all the above and more.
Us: Last year, you were adamant that an all-winners edition would never happen. Well?
JP: Yeah, I was wrong. There were a few people that had said over the years that they would never play again and like a terrible salesman, I took them at their word. Rob was one. Parvati was one. But people’s lives change, and we tried them again and they started saying yes. Then it became an abundance of riches. So much so that it was really hard to not include some of the winners because we didn’t want to go above 20.
Us: Which five players did you really need a yes from?
JP: To truly have a great season, you needed Rob, Parvati and Sandra [Diaz-Twine] from the old school. We also needed Yul [Kwon] and we needed Dani [Boatwright], who had only played once. Amber was the unicorn because she had always said no. But when I called Rob and asked “What about Amber?” I could tell from his response that, even though he didn’t commit to her, there was a part of him saying it was a possibility. Without those players, it’s not the same.
Us: Who didn’t make the final cut?
JP: Tom Westman [Survivor: Palau] was in the mix. He’s a great guy. At one point, we thought about having two games going on simultaneously. But how would that work? The cons start outweighing the pros.
Us: Why isn’t original winner Richard Hatch here?
JP: There’s nothing to hide. Given his history on the show and what happened with Sue Hawk on the All-Stars season, it did not seem right. We were in a different time and culture then, and we’d never let someone run a challenge naked now. Looking back, he just didn’t seem to fit. I didn’t feel comfortable having him on a show that’s for families. It’s about inspiring kids to want to get out and make something and see what they’re capable of. This group is very inspiring.
Us: You’re friends with some of the contestants. Is there any conflict of interest?
JP: Zero. My friendships are extremely limited. There is no weirdness. But when we get to Tribal Council, you better be on your game. If I know you, I can’t help myself.
Us: Aren’t you secretly rooting for someone?
JP: I’m rooting for a season that will make kids every week want to tune in. And I want to see winners play like winners. I want aggressive play. If Tribal Council is tentative, I’m going to be disappointed.
Us: So who do you think will win? Don’t overthink it. Gut answer.
JP: Parvati. I don’t know how she could do it, but when I hear her talking, I’m reminded that she’s really smooth.
Us: Why go back to the Edge of Extinction twist and add these new elements? Isn’t a milestone season with 20 past winners enough?
JP: Talking as an executive producer in charge of creative, the driving force for me is the belief that if you do the same thing over and over, you risk the audience getting bored and saying “Oh, I’ve seen this.” And the ratings will flatten. I look at Jeopardy! and think that if you want to innovate and try to get young kids to watch a show for older people, it’s a great time to update it a little bit. That’s my opinion. But I also didn’t think we should do all-winners, so what do I know?
Us: But Edge of Extinction was pretty polarizing the first time around.
JP: I didn’t find it polarizing. The players voted for somebody to win and fans say it’s the wrong person! This is the game! If you’re going to have 20 great winners, let’s keep them in the game. At least 10 of them asked me when I first called, “If I say yes, will I have a chance to win?” What you are able to say is with Extinction, yes, you will. In fact, you’ll have a second or third chance.
Us: Why do you think Survivor remains so popular?
JP: The basic concept hasn’t changed. People still have to rely on each other and vote each other out. The game has evolved, but you still need relationships.
Us: What about you? How many more years will we see you out here?
JP: It’s so hard to say. I do the math. And maybe the show would be more popular with a different producer. But it doesn’t matter how much money you have if the idea you’re doing is somebody else’s. What we have is the freedom to explore. That will keep us here for a long time.
Survivor: Winners at War premieres on CBS Wednesday, February 12, at 8 p.m. ET.
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