Over 15 years of hosting Survivor, Jeff Probst has seen and heard it all. Very little surprises the Emmy winner, but he did experience something new on the show’s 31st season, Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance.
“This was a very different season of gameplay,” he tells Yahoo TV. “We’ve never had a season that was played like this.”
Indeed, even the casting of this season was unique in Survivor history. For the first time, the show threw open the casting to the public, allowing them to vote for 20 contestants among a pool of 32 former players. That it didn’t go terribly wrong is a testament to die-hard Survivor fans, Probst acknowledges.
Thanks to them, the cast features players from the very first season (won by Richard Hatch) to the most recent one, Worlds Apart. They’re all getting a second chance to outwit, outplay, and outlast, and win the $1 million prize. And this season, there’s even more at stake — pride, redemption, justice, the opportunity to stop the mental tape of the mistake that led to their elimination the first time.
Here’s what Probst told us about Second Chance, and how it represents the next evolutionary step for Survivor:
How did the idea for Second Chance come about?
We’ve been talking about two big ideas for several years, and that is this notion of falling short of your goal and wanting a second chance, a shot at redemption. We knew we had a lot of people over the last 15 years who have these really interesting stories about why they fell short and things that they were working on in their life to try to redeem that. Guys like Spencer [Bledsoe, Cagayan], who left the game and realized, “I don’t know how to interact with people as people. I see them as chess pieces.” Somebody like Kelley Wentworth [San Juan del Sur], who says, I got stuck playing with my dad and I couldn’t undermine him, but he killed my game, I want a chance to go myself and play.“
And then you have people going all the way back to Andrew Savage [Pearl Islands], who is haunted by this twist and the game caught him unaware. Here’s a guy who will tell you, “I have an amazing wife, two incredible kids, am an executive level job at Yahoo, and this stupid little game keeps me up at night.” So, those were the stories that were inspiring us.
Stephen Fishbach, Tasha Fox, and Andrew Savage
You also did something you hadn’t done before: letting viewers decide who should play.
For a long time, we wanted to do something for our loyal audience to say thank you. We know our audience is with us, that’s part of the reason we’ve been on so long. They’ll watch any of the twists we try, and then they’ll let us know if they liked it or not. But they keep watching. So, this was, in part, a way to say thank you for the loyalty, you get to pick. I remember the day I talked to three producing friends and told them what we were doing and each one of them said, “You mean you’re going to let the audience pick one person or the entire group?” I said, “The entire group,” and all of them responded the same way: “You’re out of your mind.” You can’t give the audience that much control. But we felt confident and if you look at who they put on the show, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a diverse cast in ethnicity, sexuality, age, all the seasons — it goes all the way back to Season 1, and someone from Season 30.
Were you surprised by the voting results? That some people made it and others didn’t?
I was surprised in some aspects. Overall with the casting, I was incredibly happy. But any time you start with 32 and have to eliminate some of them, you’re going to be disappointed. Some of the people surprised me — I was surprised Peih-Gee [Law, China] got on. I was really happy, but I didn’t know if enough people really remembered her game. And then I was surprised that Shane Powers [Panama] didn’t get on, because he was such a powerful force in the game and such a big presence. But I was evaluating it — we revealed the vote the night of the live show, and then basically everybody got on a plane and took off. As I was flying to Cambodia, I was trying to put myself in the minds of the audience, and I thought, “I’m the kind of guy who’d like to watch Shane play again. But I’m not the type of person who would vote.” So, if the type of people who like Shane are like me and don’t vote, then Shane won’t get on. So that’s the other element — the people that want to see you play also have to be the type of individual who’s compelled to vote. That’s a different thing.
Vytas Baskauskas, Woo Hwang, Abi-Maria Gomes, Kelley Wentworth, Shirin Oskooi, Peih-Gee Law, and the rest of the Ta Keo Tribe
There are several players from the Brains/Brawn/Beauty Cagayan and Blood vs. Water seasons. Were you surprised at how well they were represented?
I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of people from Brains/Brawn/Beauty and Blood vs. Water for a couple of reasons. One reason is that they are more recent seasons, and just by that fact alone, they’re in your mind more. But also, taking Brains/Brawn/Beauty as an example, that’s one of our very best seasons, and the choices they made are great. I’m happy with all four of those people. I think what’s more interesting is that people like Kelly Wiglesworth [Borneo] and Jeff Varner [Australian Outback] and Kimmy Kappenberg [Australian Outback] were voted in. That was the proof to me that our audience has been and is still with us, from the beginning, still watching. And then those are the same people who voted in Joe [Anglim, Worlds Apart], who just finished!
What was the biggest takeaway from watching how Second Chance played out?
The single biggest thing we learned from Second Chance is how powerful true motivation is. When you have somebody who’s been waiting 12, 15 years, they’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is they really want from this adventure. And it strips away all of the fat and it leaves them with just the true meat of their intention. That’s what makes this season different from any other season we’ve ever done. We’ve never had the level of motivation that we have with this group.
Like I mentioned we had with Spencer — young man, growing up, maturing, watched his season back and realized, “I’m really good at gameplay, I’m really good at challenges, but what I’m not good at is relating to people as people.” And he came out from day one and said, “I have to learn how to talk to people.” And he’s looking for a mentor out there, somebody to teach him how to do that. And he did! And then you have somebody like Jeremy [Collins, San Juan del Sur] who comes out and says, “I was hamstrung because my wife is my life and I could not think of anything other than my wife when I was playing, and now that I’ve been home and I get this chance to play again, my motivation is really clear — I’m coming to win for my wife and my kids.” So he has a completely different thing — it’s not about what I did wrong, it’s about the clarity of the reason why I’m coming out here again.
There are a lot of those stories. Tasha [Fox, Cagayan] was really interesting to me, in that she’s a Christian, and the thing she battled with the most the first time she played was trying to be a good Christian in what a lot of people refer to as a game of the devil, where you have to lie and cheat and manipulate. She says that she went home and it was the church that said to her, “You need to step it up, you need to play Survivor, God will forgive you.” That was a huge thing for her. She said, “I now have the church telling me to lie, cheat, steal.” It’s Survivor; it’s not your real life. It’s a game.
Check out Probst’s predictions for this season:
As with any season featuring former players, there are likely to be pre-formed alliances, and this season has these big groups from Cagayan and Blood vs. Water. How did that affect the game?
I think it’s a natural assumption going in, you’d better watch out for people from the same season who are playing together, simply because they played together. But then you have to dig a little deeper, and remember that sometimes people who played together didn’t actually get along, like Spencer and Kass [McQuillen, Cagayan] did not like each other at all. While it’s safe to assume that they have a relationship, it’s also a big leap to assume that they’ve remedied all their problems and they’re now best friends.
It was pretty clear early on that old alliances were not going to be a big factor in the game. This was a very different season of gameplay. We’ve never had a season that was played like this. You will see it evolve naturally, but this season took the game to a different level in terms of how to approach strategic relationships.
Interesting! So how do you think this season stacks up against others?
I was burned again last year, or reminded again last year, that I thought White Collar/Blue Collar/No Collar was phenomenal, and of course, I hear one person say it sucked, and I go, “OK, I’m never again going to predict if a season is good or not.” But I really think people are going to like this season, and I think they’re going to see a different game. It’s going to be interesting what it means for the future.
What else can we expect this season?
One other thing we’re doing is that for the most part, every challenge will be a second chance challenge, so it will be a repeat challenge from an old season. In most cases, there is somebody in the game that’s done that challenge, so it’s a second chance for them to do better. We got really lucky — we build these challenges several weeks in advance and plan them months in advance and we just kept getting lucky with the people left in the game and the challenges that were coming up on the grid. Quite a few times, I’d show up and say, “And so and so, you did this challenge in your season. You lost, and here’s a second chance for you.” So, there’s a great theme to that.
Stephen Fishbach, Keith Nale, Andrew Savage, Jeremy Collins, Ciera Eastin, Jeremy Collins, Tasha Fox, and Kimmi Kappenberge
We also tried something new this year. In the past, every idol has looked alike on purpose so that there was no question that somebody had an idol. We’d make it in our art department and replicate it, or we’d find something locally. This season, we went the other way; every single idol looks different. Some of them look really polished, like they were manufactured. Some of them look like they were made of bits and pieces of things that could’ve been on a treemail. The idea is that we wanted to see what would happen if you had different-looking idols. Would that throw any suspicion on whether or not they really are idols? If that’s an idol, why doesn’t it look like an idol I saw earlier?
Well, we’ve seen previous players try to pass off some homemade thing as an idol in the hopes of affecting their fate.
Exactly! Or maybe it gives somebody the idea to try to make one, knowing this is the season that they might be able to sell it. One of the things we love to do on the show is just try things. Sometimes they work really well, sometimes they don’t work at all. Sometimes they don’t become a factor. But throwing all of those curveballs keeps the players on their toes. Making sure they understand that no matter how well they know the game, they don’t know everything.
Yes, it seems in recent years, we’re seeing more and more so-called “students of the game.”
I think you’re right. The game has become this sort of meta thing, where you have people on the show telling the other players on the show what to expect to happen on the show, because they watch the show. It’s like this circle that keeps going: Here’s what they usually do, here’s what they’ll probably do, I know because I’ve been watching and now I’m on it. And you’re just spinning in circles with all of your Survivor information. And sometimes that can be really helpful, and sometimes it lulls you into taking your eyes off the prize when the answer was sitting in front of you the entire time.
Right. That kind of happened last season with Max [Dawson], the professor who thought he knew Survivor so well. Then, he got blindsided.
I think that’s exactly what happened. He was so certain he knew the game that he didn’t just come out and play. JUST PLAY. It’s like when the coach says, “We’ve done all the drills, we’ve practiced everything, now just go out and play.” That’s what you have to do on Survivor. At some point, you just have to say, “I’ve studied every season, I know every possible challenge, I’ve tried to learn how to make fire and how to build a lean-to, I can eat a grub if I have to.” Now, just go play.
Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance premieres Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. on CBS.