Jeff Probst Reveals Whether 'Survivor' Will Ever Return to 39 Days

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Jeff Probst oversees the Episode 8 Immunity Challenge on 'Survivor 46'

WARNING! The following article contains spoilers for Survivor 46 Episode 12. Please do not scroll any further if you do not want to learn the events of this week's episode.

"39 days, 16 people, 1 Survivor." Those are the words that Jeff Probst used to welcome us to Survivor's iconic first season back in May 2000. And throughout the veteran reality series, despite the changes in cast, location, and format, one of the few consistencies was the length of the season. With a couple of exceptions, the castaways would have a little over a month to outwit, outplay, and outlast in the hopes of banking that million-dollar prize and the title of Sole Survivor.

But Survivor's return after a brief hiatus in 2021 brought a "new era," and a number of changes alongside it. Perhaps the most notable: Its length. Every season since 41 has ran 26 days, removing a third of the time from Survivor's seasonal calendar. The change's origins stemmed specifically from filming during the pandemic.

"How we landed at 26 days to begin with was COVID," Probst explained on this week's episode of "On Fire: The Official Survivor Podcast." "We've talked about this the requirements of starting with a 14-day quarantine and then doing two 39-day seasons back to back and not being able to ever leave the island for anything once we started. We just couldn't do it. So we had to get creative. We landed at 26 days."

Probst then went on to mention that, even consulting with producers at the time, the choice to shift to 26 days was not met with unanimity. As he put it, "There were people in my inner circle saying you're going to destroy the franchise because you won't have enough good story content." There was concern that reducing the shooting schedule by a third would leave much less time for challenges, interviews, and camp life, and fear that the result would impact the quality of the episodes. However, after taking everyone's opinions into consideration, the 26-day decision stuck.

The new day number has had no bearing on the airing of Survivor, outside of a slight shift in episode count to 13 from the 14 of most pre-pandemic seasons. Yet, the season length has still been one of the perennial sticking points of the new era. Certain fans and even past players have spoken out against the 26-day game, claiming the experience of the newer players doesn't resemble the 40 seasons that came before them. In the four years so far of the new era, Probst has heard it all.

"There's usually two points of contention when it comes to 39 days," he said. "And I'll address both of them from the producer point of view. The first one: Fans simply don't want the game to change. They want Survivor to stay the same. I totally understand their point of view. In their minds, Survivor's 39 days, 18 people. And now they're saying, 'Yeah, and we want that back as well!' So they think that we should have and still could go back to 39 days. The second part is the difficulty. '26 days simply can't be punishing enough because it's 13 fewer days. Do the math, Probst! The new era version of Survivor is clearly easier.'"

Related: Everything to Know About Survivor 46

The latter point spins off of the most recent episode of Survivor 46, which highlighted Ben Katzman struggling with his mental faculties. Twenty days into the game, the rock star has been rocked by the elements. He's been struggling to sleep during his time on the island, consistently experiencing night terrors and panic attacks. And the exhaustion has carried over strategically, as he accidentally wrote down Kenzie Petty's name at the last Tribal Council, completely blanking on what the plan was.

"I think it's pretty clear from this season," Probst said. "The new era--brace yourself, old-time players--is more difficult. Because the physical demands of surviving with very, very little or, for some players, no food is extremely punishing. And it begins to break you down mentally. You can't think; you can't sleep; you can't trust. That leads to the emotional breakdown, which can be brutal." 

So Probst has brought up the origins of the shift to 26 days, as well as how the changes in the new era have arguably made it harder than the first 40 seasons. The question is: Is 26 days here to stay? Especially with the announcement of the upcoming 50th season being the first all-returnee season in over five years, fans have been hoping the landmark would be an opportunity to bring back the 39-day format.

"Well, never say never," Probst responded to the question. "And I mean that. We're always open to where the game takes us as much as where we take the game. But for the time being, 26 days is the game. And I get it. If somebody else were sitting in this seat, they might make a very different decision. Even people on our own team, I think there's some of them that kind of wish we were at 39 days. So it's not right or wrong. It's just, this is what we're doing."

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This week of "On Fire" also touched on one big change production has made for the new era. The Immunity Challenge in this episode featured a brand-new puzzle, and so the conversation turned to the oft-discussed topic of previously-used puzzles on the show. Over the years, contestants like David Wright, Evvie Jagoda, and Carson Garrett have studied and, in some cases, even 3D-printed puzzles they've seen on the show before. And so, when they faced the same puzzles on the island, they aced them in no time.

"We were aware for years that there were players who were making 3D replicas of our puzzles and practicing them," Probst recounted. "And sometimes it would even come up during casting when we were meeting somebody. And we used to joke, 'One day, we're going to end up with a player on the show who encounters a puzzle in a challenge that they had actually already made a copy of and studied, and they're gonna win the challenge.' You have to remember that our challenges are designed by the challenge department, looked at by the art department, then approved by me. [They're] often already under construction before we even know who's going to be on the show. And then taking it a step deeper, you don't know who will still be in the game when you get to a certain challenge with a specific puzzle. So while it was possible that that might happen, it seemed highly improbable."

So when the improbable became probable, and contestants were winning challenges they duplicated and practiced at home, it initially elicited excitement more than anxiety. What had been joked about in casting calls had finally happened, something production felt was inevitable. So they were fine to continue what they were doing, as we saw more players incorporate 3D printing and makeshift puzzles into their pre-island prep.

Related: Jeff Probst Reveals the Secret Theme of 'Survivor 46'

"[Initially], we actually thought it was kind of a cool meta moment," Probst said, "and talked about the connection that we have with the audience who becomes the player. But then, like we always do, we assess and assess and assess. And we decided, 'Let's make some adjustments.' So one season, we said, 'That's enough.'"

Finally, even if a return to 39 days isn't on the horizon for Survivor, there may be one hallmark of the new era that could see a comeback. This episode featured half the cast visiting the Sanctuary and receiving letters from home. The emotional sequence has consistently been a reward in the new era, replacing the traditional loved ones visit. Season 45 winner Dee Valladares asked Probst if we would ever see an in-person loved ones visit again, the last one happening in epic fashion during Winners at War.

"We definitely discussed the idea," Probst answered. "Even recently, it's coming up a lot. But we have not made any decisions for future seasons. And part of the reason is that the letters from home, in my opinion, are a fascinating examination of what is it that we actually need to bring us comfort? Do we need the physical?" When Valladares responded that the loved ones experience is not only for the players, but the relatives themselves, getting to merge the on-island and real-life families, Probst responded that he would "put that in the creative hopper" for future consideration.

Next, check out the photos, bios, and interviews with the cast of Survivor 46.