I had the pleasure to sit in on a conference call today to interview Jeff Probst, host of Survivor. The interview itself lasted a little over 45 minutes, and though I didn't pose a question myself, a lot of great questions were answered! To follow, you will find the transcript:
Welcome to the CBS Conference Call with Jeff Probst. The host for today’s conference is Ms. Colleen Sullivan.
Colleen: Jeff is on the line. He is here to talk about the final 2 episodes of Survivor. Most importantly, the big finale this Sunday, May 11th. As you probably know, the finale itself will be from 8-10 pm, immediately followed by a live reunion show that will also be hosted by Jeff. So, Jeff – you’re on.
First question posed is from Hal Bodeker of the Orlando Sentinel:
HB: I think most people would say this is one of the better Survivors. I’m wondering if you agree and why do you think it was?
JEFF: I absolutely think this has been one of our best seasons. It’s hard to ever quantify why, but I think a lot of it has to do with the good characters lasting deep into the show. You know, every season when we begin, there are usually 3 or 4 or 5 people that we think “Wow! These people are really gonna pop!” For whatever reason. It could be that they are going to be a great villain. It could be they’ll be a great heroine. But for whatever reason, you know they are going to be exciting IF they can last long enough. And you can look back on season’s past where that didn’t happen. You know, Gina and Hunter from the Marquesas. Out early. Those were 2 people that we were hoping were going to last a long time… might have some romance… certainly had the sex appeal and those kind of things really help. When you get down to a final 5 that includes Rob, as one of probably the smartest guys to ever play this game, and Heidi and Jenna, definitely one of the most memorable couples to ever be on Survivor, and those 3 right there are in your final 5, along with a guy that everybody thinks is nuts, and then just to balance it all out, a school principal that won’t look at the naked girls, you’ve got a great fivesome! [laughter]
HB: You made a comment in TV Guide that you would never expect the final 2 to be the final 2. I’m wondering can you expand on that comment at all?
JEFF: Well, every season you kind of look at the 16 and – I don’t have a vested interest in who wins, but I always think “Ok, who has the, you know, the patience and who has the adaptability. Who’s quick enough socially?” In my head, there’s always 3 or 4 people that I think “NO WAY they’re ever gonna make it to the final 2.” And I can tell ya, going into this fivesome, with the exception of Rob, I would have said that about the other 4. Out of 4 of these 5, Jenna, Heidi, Butch and Matthew, you know, I think it would be very difficult. And in the very beginning, I thought Rob was – when I first met him, I thought Rob was probably first or second out simply because he didn’t fit in. You know, it was a surprise to me that Ryan – Ryan was a guy I thought if he got his stuff together could actually make it, so… when I looked at Rob as the only sorta young, you know, young guy there that wasn’t physically fit, wasn’t socially as… I don’t want to say… what I’m trying to think how I would describe Rob… but he definitely was the outcast of the guys. He just looked like it! He looked like the guy that always got picked last. Matthew, even though he was the strongest physically in terms of survival aspects, had ZERO social ability it appeared to me. [laughter] And Jenna and Heidi – the cute girls just never last, you know. And Butch – how he snuck through to this final 5 is still amazing! And there’s always one guy like that! You think there’s no way! And then before you know it, you better watch out because he’s gonna be sitting in that final seat!
Next question is from Rob Owen of Pittsburgh Post Gizelle
RO: Hi Jeff. I’m wondering… Jenna’s outburst this past week on the show… did that come as a surprise to you when it happened?
JEFF: Yeah. And I loved it. When Jenna turned around and started laying Rob out, I thought “Finally! You’re playing the game!” Because up until then, I think Jenna was sort of deserving of the rap she was taking of just whining and being selfish and all that stuff. And I was happy to see her finally have had enough… and Rob’s comment back to her was perfect: “I’m sorry. I thought we were playing the same game.” And it shows so clearly to me how such a silly game like Survivor can hit at such a core level. The way you’re raised, what your core values are, impact you so much. Rob didn’t see anything wrong with lying and flip flopping back and forth. That’s the game. Jenna, on the other hand, boy! If you betray her, you’ve committed the worst sin of all! It’s what makes the game fun for me. Richard Hatch was very much like Rob in that he looked at it as not a moral situation. It was an amoral situation. This is a game. My whole goal is to try and set you up and then knock you off.
RO: When Christy went last week, she called Jenna and Heidi the “wicked stepsisters.”
JEFF: One of the best confessional speeches ever.
RO: It was. But do you think they are deserving of that particular [title] or do you think that they were edited to look that way?
JEFF: [Sigh followed by a VERY long pause] I would say this. We don’t put words in anybody’s mouth. Jenna and Heidi have said all the things we have shown them saying. Does this show show all aspects of a personality? Absolutely not. It can’t. And is the game over? No. So it’s hard to comment. But at this point, with 5 people left, do Jenna and Heidi deserve some of the heat they are taking? Sure! It’s a game though and that’s why it’s hard to comment until the end. Is Butch this principal with principals? Or is he the most savvy guy out there? Is Matthew crazy? Or is that his game plan? Those are the questions that are going to be decided over these last 2 episodes and THEN I think it’s fair to ask the question, “Were you treated fairly? Do you deserve your rap? Was it part of your plan?” There is so much still to happen.
Next question is from Gail Pennington of St. Louis Post Dispatch
GP: Hi Jeff. When Janet was voted off first, she was very loud and complaining that the game divided by the sexes wasn’t fair to the women. And she said that the only way to make it fair would have been to give the women chainsaws. Do you have a thought on that?
JEFF: [Laughs] Janet is hilarious. Janet also had maybe the second best confessional speech when she said “Ladies, if you’re having a mid life crisis, get a change of hair color.” That was a funny comment. I don’t really agree with Janet, though. In the sense that was the experiment is how would women fair and how would men fair. And if you look at it, even as recently as last week, it was 3-3! You know, it was 3 women, 3 men. In fact, the women had the men on their asses in the beginning! Running backwards trying to catch up! They killed them in those first 4 out of 5 challenges. And every guy there still remembers that feeling. You know, look at Ryan. First person out of this game was one of the youngest, fittest guys. Why? Because the women kicked his ass. Second guy out, the other young, fit guy. Why? Because the women kicked their ass again. So, I kind of disagree. I think it brings up a lot of questions though… things that I certainly want to try and find out at the reunion show about men and women, how we get along as sexes and how we get along when we’re intermingled. But, you know, Janet, it’s a tough game. And Janet was, for all intents and purposes, Janet conquered what she wanted to conquer by surviving the days she did out there… and that was a lot. But, making the game fair? That’s the whole point. It’s equal. Giving them chainsaws would have obviously made it unfair and would have also sent the message that women can’t handle themselves as well as men, which clearly they did.
GP: And I think the women have sent enough messages about feminism on their own, thank you very much.
JEFF: [Courteous laughter for a statement that wasn’t funny.]
GP: One more thing about the women. In that challenge when Jenna and Heidi stripped naked for peanut butter, did you ask them to do that or did they just think it up on their own?
JEFF: Jenna absolutely came up with that idea on her own.
GP: I thought so! If they had just jumped off with all their clothes on, they still would have gotten the peanut butter, right? Because that was the plan.
JEFF: Well, hard to say. The idea behind that challenge where they jumped off for peanut butter and chocolate is to see within the tribe who needs immunity and force them to show their hand. So, one of the ideas is I’ll tempt ya. If you want a pizza and you’re willing to give up immunity? Fine. Take a pizza. Just remember what you’re saying to your tribe mates right now. And it bit Roger in the butt. He was one of the first guys to jump down and he needed it. So when Jenna said, “I’ll get naked for peanut butter and chocolate” to me was like, “Well, that’s a home run!” [laughter] For once, I will say I was a victim of editing because the way the show played out it looks like I had that in my hip pocket and couldn’t get it served fast enough, when the TRUTH is I sat out there for about 40 minutes and let them think about it and I said, “I don’t know… chocolate and peanut butter? That’s a lot! I don’t know if I can come up with that.” And they kept saying, “Well, we’ll jump in.” But, of course, the producer in me is going, “Get me the peanut butter and chocolate ASAP.”
GP: But did you look?
JEFF: Uhhhh. You know, the truth is I’m sure I looked, but you don’t remember it because you were really thinking, from a production point of view which is…this sounds so ridiculous but it’s the truth… how do you set this pacing up in a way that we’re gonna have a shot of Jenna and Heidi. Then we want to make sure we’ve got time before they jump so that we’ve got a different shot. So you’re trying to pace it in a way that forces them into a pattern that we can cover it so that we can promo it on our show and get good ratings! [laughter]
Next question is from Donna Petrazello of the New York Daily News
JEFF: What up, Donna?
DP: Hey Jeff. How are ya? How do you prepare for the reunion show?
JEFF: I talk to all 16 and kind of just go over their experience and try and find their highs and lows, things that might push their hot buttons, things that they feel maybe were still left unfinished. And then I just take all those notes and kind of go through and try and figure out what I think would be the most entertaining show from the audience point of view. And typically, I don’t tell them too much about what’s going to be on the show so that we still have some spontaneity. But, there’s usually, at the end of a season, just from people stopping me on the street, I have a pretty good idea that they’re going to want to hear from Heidi and Jenna, they want to talk a little to Rob, they want to know what happened between Alex and Shawna and what was Christy’s experience like. Those kind of things.
DP: Now, you’re going to open the votes live?
JEFF: [coyly] Well, we’re gonna have the votes play out. I can’t say how we’re gonna do it. [laughs]
DP: Where have they been locked up all this time?
JEFF: Well, the votes, whether they’re read or not read, are always immediately, after the final tribal, are put into a sort of security packet and they are not out of anybody’s sight ever. And then when they are delivered to CBS, I’m sure it’s less than 6 or 7 people that know the results.
DP: You said you talk to all 16, find the highs and lows and stuff. When do you get together with them before we see you do it in the finale?
JEFF: I do it over the phone. I just pre-interview them over the phone and really, it’s really to see if there things I didn’t know about that happened that didn’t make it in the show that were interesting. It’s also just to check in with them and kind of tell them how the show works and that it’s going to be fast. The hardest thing about the reunion show is that it’s only an hour and it’s not even a full hour because the votes go into that time, and so you can’t always get to all 16 and give them the attention they want. So you’re trying to balance between what’s a good show and what’s the “right” thing to do. As you can probably guess, I’m leaning towards what is a good show. So there’s certain people that we just won’t hear as much from.
Next question is from Helen Glover [Survivor Thailand] of the Providence Journal
HG: WHOOOOOOO! [laughter] Hey Jeff!!!
JEFF: Hello Helen.
HG: I wasn’t going to ask a question until you started on and on about Jenna and Heidi, and I have just got to jump in here with… I’m just curious… was Survivor the show happy with the role models that these girls have now provided for young girls when there are so many excellent role models out there. And I know that you don’t so much choose and you might not even realize how they were going to play out on the show, but I just look at the fact that I have a young daughter and that these girls, one of them is a school teacher, and that this is aired at a family time… and that was one of the things that I heard… how much they loved sitting down as a family and watching Survivor: Thailand and I know people were so anticipating Survivor: The Amazon, especially with the women against the men and really having some great role models for young girls of today to look up to and then, here we are, stuck with Jenna and Heidi, one of them, if not both, are going to make the final 4, and I’m getting ready to write and article and I’ll tell ya, I’m gonna hit that HARD because I think it was just an embarrassment to have these 2 girls representing young girls of today when I know that there are just thousands out there that would just really… and I know from your standpoint it’s probably made great TV, but I’m seeing an episode where these 2 girls strip off their clothes when they didn’t need to do it…
HG: and I, quite honestly, I was thinking they were gonna strip off their clothing, cause the guys to stumble.
HG: I’m thinking, not the way I would have played it, not that anyone wants to see me without my clothes on, but I’m thinking, “okay, hey, maybe maybe maybe. That’s good. They are going to cause Alex to fall and they’re going to end up winning it. But to just give up – ”
JEFF: [thankfully interrupting Helen FINALLY] Well, I don’t know that’s what they did. I think it’s a fair question, but they’re still in this game and one of the things that I want to explore is exactly what you – what you’re saying is what impact did it have on the game separating the men versus the women and did it change the way the men behaved and the women behaved? You can make the argument that they got naked for nothing, but maybe they thought, “We’ll get naked and we’ll stay in this game longer than Jean, Deena, JoAnna, Janet, Christy and uh… I guess that’s it.” And it worked. They are in this game. I’m not saying this was their plan, but you don’t know that it wasn’t. Women who understand men, which is most women, know how easily manipulated we are. And there’s a chance that maybe I’ll score with them! Who knows?!
HG: Yeah, but I think of the beautiful girls that were on before… you know, Tanya and Penny and Erin and Shii Ann and even Stephanie – well, Stephanie, take her out of the quotient there – and they didn’t have to resort to that.
JEFF: But Helen. Different dynamic. This was separating men and women in the beginning. It changed it. I –
HG: But they weren’t separated at that challenge.
JEFF: But the tone of the game from the beginning was men versus women and the sexual energy was so amped up from the beginning… you saw it in the first challenge they got a chance to interact. It was flirt, flirt, flirt, flirt. And the guys lost the challenge because they lost their minds.
HG: Right. So is that an indication of what we’re going to see in future Survivors?
JEFF: Oh no! Absolutely not! We didn’t set out to cast this show knowing we would have nudity. We have no idea what we’re going to get from these people and like I said earlier, we have no idea that Jenna and Heidi will even last in this game. You don’t know. We lose good people all the time. The fact that the 2 of them teamed up, became friends so to speak in the game, and encouraged each other, it was an odd thing. We’re well aware that there was some content that was not so appropriate for our younger viewers. We don’t want that every season, but we can’t walk away from it. The show is what it is and as you know from being on it, one of the risks that the show has inherent in its design is you build a $20 Million dollar adventure and you then turn it over to 16 people that you don’t know, who don’t care about your show at all. They want a million dollars. And that’s what makes it exciting to do. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don’t. Because I’ll tell you what. You can flip it around and say that the final 4 in Thailand was one of the most boring final 4s we’ve ever had because it was predictable because you guys were all old enough that you didn’t do anything wacky. Was that more entertaining or more appropriate? No! It’s the way the show played out. The smarter people were at the end and they played it low key. And because of Jan, you didn’t have a chance to win.
HG: Thanks for reminding me, Jeff.
[to be continued in a second part]