Nineteen castaways?! Two Hidden Immunity Idols?! Luxurious campsite?! What the heck is going on with the next season of "Survivor"!? (At least they're not dividing the tribes by race again.) The Slug called Jeff Probst for every detail we could squeeze out of him about the Fiji-set edition of the CBS show, premiereing Feb. 8. (And if you want to find out where those two Hidden Immunity Idols are hidden, you'll have to listen to our asap podcast.) The Q&A, after the jump. Unless you don't want to be spoiled. At all.
The Slug: First, let's review. Now that it's over and done, what did you think about "Cook Islands?"
Jeff Probst: I feel the same way now I felt about "Cook Islands" the second I felt after we finished the season, which was it was one of the five best seasons we've ever done. And I still feel that way. It was interesting to watch the arc that started with all this outrageous reaction to this idea we had and then quickly followed by "Oh! They bailed on it two weeks in!" followed by "This season isn't really that good. It's really boring." followed by "Oh my God! What a great ending! This is one of my favorite seasons ever!"
That's how it felt for me out there. Those emotions are the same emotions I felt. I wish we hadn't bailed as early as we did. The middle of the show waned a little bit. And the second we had the mutiny and we were down to a tribe of four, which were clear underdogs, it just kicked into high gear.
It finished very strong. If you're a fan of "Survivor," it had one of the best Tribal Council votes we ever had, two very likable, deserving people and one person won by one vote. And you could even trace that vote back to a move they made in the game and how they got that winning vote.
The Slug: Any regrets about the racial divide?
Jeff Probst: Zero. None. None! I'm glad it got people talking, if only for a moment. Personally, I'm happy that our show is more ethnically diverse. It's more fun. It's more interesting. So whatever road it took to get there, I think it's been good. And as a result, we had a much more interesting group in the "Cook Islands" and once again in "Fiji." We have a more interesting group just due to diversity and coming from different worlds.
The Slug: Now there was some criticism about your influence during "Cook Islands," specifically when you pointed out Yul brought Jonathan his hat to Tribal Council. When is too much, you know, too much?
Jeff Probst: It's a fine line I walk. The line is being a moderator on the show and being an instigator. That fine line is when you start influencing the game too much. It's always a judgment call. It's never really any formal discussion about it. We all know that line. There's a lot of trust in me to not step over it. I'm sure at times I do, and I have. I'm sure there are times when I've been too heavy handed or hard on somebody. I usually can justify it in my head.
There was a time in the Cook Islands when Yul had skated through Tribal Council after Tribal Council and never really got hammered on anything. There was a point where he had revealed he had the Idol, he had revealed he was in control of the game and after that.
At the next Tribal Council, I felt like there were certain questions the audience was gonna want to know, which was "Why would you let a guy rule the game like this, have the Idol, let him tell you he has the Idol, let him tell you he's in control of the game and not try to stop it? Are you just gonna let him waltz to the finish line?" And Yul got upset. He's like, "Jeff, why are you picking on me?" And I said, "Yul, you've had a free pass for the last several Tribal Councils. I'm saying everything that everybody's thinking." So that's how I look at it.
The Slug: How do you try to top yourselves for "Fiji"? What was the creative process?
Jeff Probst: Imagine a group of eight or nine people and — those of us who have hair — pulling it out, hair by hair or clump by clump. That's what creative meetings are like anymore. We're now into our 14th season. It's not an endless well. We realize it's very apparent in the room we bring up an idea either we've already done a version of or some other reality show, which there are now hundreds, has already done. That pie is sliced so thin.
Coming up with big promotable ideas that you can get people into episode one and hopefully hook them becomes more and more difficult to do. There's no getting around it. There's no use hiding behind some lie. One day we'll run out of ideas, and we'll have to adapt again. So we sit down and look at ideas that we wanted to do maybe three years ago and maybe they make sense now. Should we start to change the format of the show? So far, to date, we've said no. That doesn't make sense. There's no magical answer to coming up with new ideas. It's literally pounding your head against the wall and saying we won't quit.
The Slug: So what's "Survivor: Fiji" about?
Jeff Probst: The overall theme is letting them make almost every decision in terms of how this game will play out in the initial setup. That was the big idea. It starts with 19 people because we had somebody quit the night before, which has never happened before, so that threw us for a bit of a loop because we didn't anticipate an odd number.
They're literally just put on a beach. They've got some fruit trees there, but that's it. I come over in a float plane and drop a box. And in that box they start to get the information. And the information is you're gonna need to build the most elaborate shelter "Survivor" has ever seen. Here's blue prints, a building plan, a map to find lumber and tools. You've got a sink and a kitchen area and a couch, all kinds of stuff to build this elaborate shelter. They're told they have to finish this before the game can continue.
They build this great shelter. They've got water and flint. Once they finish building it, I show up and say, "Now you're gonna figure how to divide these tribes up." They choose somebody to divide the tribes. That person divides them, and they square off in a challenge. The losers have to go to a new beach where they literally have a machete, pot and water they have to boil. No fire. They have a cave they can kind of get under, but it's miserable.
The game is about one tribe living a life of luxury, and the other tribe really scraping to get by while the other tribe has it so good it almost doesn't feel like "Survivor" to them. They have a couch. They have tables. The tribe that wins the first challenge goes back to this reward, which is all these luxury items. They're not necessarily better. They just make life better like hammocks and umbrellas and bottles and decanters and all this silverware and plates and china and a bush shower. So you see them eating. It looks like some sort of Ralph Lauren picnic.
The other tribes show up and they're dragging their butts because they haven't even had water. What was really interesting was how quickly you started to see the attitude change where the winning tribe started to have this sense of entitlement. It was fascinating to watch the rich tribe get lazy and entitled and the poor tribe get desperate and resentful.
The Slug: Tell us about the person who quit. There wasn't an alternate?
Jeff Probst: We brought alternates in the past. We had an alternate in "Cook Islands." Sundra was an alternate, and Sundra made it to the final four. But we only bring an alternate if we're worried about somebody. We weren't worried about anybody. We thought we had a solid group of people.
One woman, bless her heart, she just got overwhelmed and started panicking. We told her about how the show works and how you'll be a little isolated. It was just too much for her. Our psychologist talked to her. Our medical doctor talked to her. We went out and talked to her. There was just no way you could try to encourage her to stay on the show. She was not comfortable — not even close to comfortable. And the game hadn't started. So we said, "All right. You're out."
The Slug: Oh my. When did this happen? During training?
Jeff Probst: It was the night before. We did give them a little course on what's going to go on out there. You know, what berries to pick and what snakes to watch out for. She was OK during that period. As a group, they can feel the game's about to begin. They're secluded. And they can sense a shift in energy. She could feel the game was about to begin. All the producers go out and explain the game. She just panicked. So we were stuck with 19. It required one shift. We were orignally going to have two tribes of 10. We won't be able to do that now. So we came up with an alternate idea of what to do.
The Slug: What happens?
Jeff Probst: It plays out in the first episode. It's nothing significant. Instead of having two equal teams, you have two tribes and one extra person. And what do you do with that other person? It played out just fine. The only drag is we lost a person, and it just effects your creativity a little bit. Where you maybe wanted to do a double Tribal Council and vote two people out, you can't because you just lost one. It has a little bit of trickle down, but when it happens before the show, it's very easy to move everything a little bit.
The Slug: There's more diversity in the cast again. Was that a conscious effort again?
Jeff Probst: We started something in motion. Let's work hard to do it again. I think we're setting ourselves up if we think each season we can have an equal number from every ethnic group. There's already ethnic groups that aren't represented.
You really hamper your casting if you say you have to have five people from a certain group. So I don't think that's something that has to happen forever. But I think (executive producer) Mark (Burnett) and CBS wanted to show that we didn't just do it as a gimmick. We really want to incorporate more diversity into the show. And we're gonna keep doing it as best we can.
The Slug: Last season, there was some criticism because so many of the cast were in the entertainment industry. Looks like there's 10 castaways from California. How do you try to keep the cast as real as possible?
Jeff Probst: I can say this group is one of the most real groups we've had. They fact that a lot of them are from California will not feel that way. This is one of the most real, dirty groups we've had. I get where you're going with the question. There's a lot of factors in casting a reality show now. We're not the only reality show now. There are a lot of reality shows now. Every other reality show on the air is less demanding and much easier than "Survivor." Some of the people we might have gotten before, they pick easier shows now where they get a hotel and don't have to spend a month and a half in 100-degree heat with no food. So that's one big factor.
You may want to look for diversity and you force it a little bit and have to work a little harder. Those people may not apply so you have to go find them. That becomes a factor. I honestly think we're in the midst of a change. Between YouTube and all these reality shows, everybody is tasting this idea of sharing themselves with the world. I find it fascinating. I see it making an impact on our casting. I don't know what a real person is vs. somebody who wants to be on a reality show vs. someone who moved to California to be in the entertainment industry.
The Slug: Tell us about the Hidden Immunity Idols. There's two this season, but how are they used?
Jeff Probst: I think we figured out how to do it this season. The very first time we introduced it, you had to play it before anybody voted. Then the second time we introduced it, you could play it after the votes had been made and read. So it was an absolute get-out-of-jail-free card.
This season, I think we found the happy medium. You must play the Idol after the votes have been cast but before I read them. Before the votes, I say, "How confident are you? Do you want to take a chance? Or should you play your Idol?" That made a dramatic difference. The Idols get played. Nobody is sitting on their Idol until the end and taking it home as a souvenir.
The Slug: How did Fiji's military coup impact the production?
Jeff Probst: The coup was a discussion almost the entire time we were out there. We kept hearing, "OK. It's gonna happen next Saturday." And then it wouldn't happen. Then we'd hear, "OK. It's gonna happen next Tuesday." We have quite an investment in Fiji. We had people with the government that were keeping us abreast and keeping an eye out for us. People told us, at least initially, it won't be violent. It wasn't. It ended up happening during our last few days. It impacted us in terms of supplies. We have people that shop over in the mainland for stuff we need for challenges or food for our catering. Stuff like that it made difficult because they kicked all of us out of there and wouldn't let us have our stuff. When you consider what's happening to the people who live there, the impact was neglibable.
The Slug: Do you have another "Survivor" in you?
Jeff Probst: Oh yeah. CBS has told us we're renewed. So we're working on "Survivor 15" right now. It's kinda crazy. It's actually been a really fun, life-changing experience to go from anonymity to falling into this show, which kinda changed TV a little bit, and go from being the No. 1 show on TV to being this show that's, you know, still around. We're not on the cover of magazines anymore, but we're still hanging in there. We're still top 20 and getting our ratings. It's been fascinating — and lucky for me.