Jeff Probst: Strong ‘Survivor’
“Survivor” might not have been the first reality competition show — depending on whom you ask — but it certainly set the modern standard. It may seem everyday business now, but back in 2000, proving that simmering psychodrama between an oft-naked corporate consultant, an acerbic truck driver and a rafting coach on a Malaysian island could draw more eyeballs than “Friends,” “Monday Night Football” and the Oscars registered as a seismic disruption in television.
In fact, Jeff Probst, the show’s longtime host and current exec producer, is still grappling with the precedent he helped set.
“When ‘Survivor’ started 13 years ago, I kind of knew nothing about TV, to be honest. So when they told me that more than 50 million people watched the first season finale, I though, ‘Oh, well that’s cool,’ ” he says, laughing. “I had no idea the impact it was having.”
As Probst has grown into his seemingly permanent role on the seemingly deathless show, he’s certainly learned a bit about the folly of trying to predict the fickle forces of crowd dynamics, whether those crowds comprise contestants or viewers. After all, ‘Survivor’ can be seen just as much as a for-profit sociology experiment as a reality competition.
“I don’t have a formal background in psychology,” Probst says. “But I do have a big interest — I’ve certainly been to a bit of therapy and read a lot of books (on it). I’m really fascinated by why we do the things we do, and I look at my own life that way too. I have my triggers too, and I often put myself into the game and say, ‘This would get me. My ego would get me here, or my insecurity get me here, or the need to be right would get me here,’ and look at where I would self-combust.”
Indeed, Probst professes fascination with the ways contestants’ individual psychologies often get in the way of winning strategies. For example, any fan of the show knows that players often vote off the most capable leaders in the cast, knowing that they’ll be fiercer competition later on when push comes to shove. Yet as much as contestants may be aware of this, certain facets of one’s personality are difficult to suppress.
“There’s no predicting how one human will react in any situation,” Probst says. “In the sixth or seventh season there started to be this groundswell of observation, which was, ‘Why do these people keep making the same mistakes as earlier seasons? Don’t they know better by now?’
“And I kind of bought into that for a couple of seasons too, until one day I realized, it’s in our nature. If I’m a leader, I’m going to lead. No matter what I say when I’m sitting there on the couch (beforehand), under extreme conditions, my natural instinct will be to say, ‘I know this will make me a target, but I can’t just sit here and watch you fumble around with the shelter, I’ve got to take charge.’ ”
Probst’s own self-discovery process has seen him branch into a number of unfamiliar environs over the past few years. For starters, he will return to the film director’s chair later this year with his second feature, Kiss Me, and he also penned a vaguely Survivor-themed young adult novel, titled Stranded, which hit bookstores last February.
And then there was the one high-profile misstep. Last fall Probst launched a daytime talker, only to have “Survivor’”s iconic “outlast” directive come back and bite him. Thanks to low ratings, “The Jeff Probst Show” was canceled by CBS TV Distribution before the end of its first season.