Jeff Probst comments on new Survivor season

Editor's Note: Jeff Probst has hosted "Survivor" since its 2000 launch, and on the eve of a new season premiere (tonight, 8 p.m. EST on CBS), C2M contributor Anthony Cusumano talked to Probst about what to expect from this latest edition.

After 21 seasons, the debut of yet another edition of the CBS reality hit "Survivor" is unlikely to stir up much conversation. But thanks to the reintroduction of two controversial previous contestants and a game-altering format change that's sparked feverish debate among fans since its announcement, "Survivor: Redemption Island" promises to be one of the most explosive seasons to date.

Returning for a record-breaking fourth "Survivor" stint, "Boston Rob" Mariano transformed from a scrappy "Godfather" wannabe in 2002's "Marquesas" to a mature tribe leader on last spring's "Heroes vs. Villains." It was on that season he met fellow returnee Russell Hantz, the "Samoa" strategist who made a name for himself by burning another player's socks and making—and breaking—alliances with nearly everyone. Paired on the Villains team, the two butted heads from the start and fought to eliminate each other, culminating in Mariano's shocking early exit. Just as he had done in his previous season, Hantz made it to the finals and lost in a landslide.

"Their rivalry was so strong and so fresh that we knew the audience would relate to them," said host Jeff Probst via e-mail. "Rob and Russell can both carry a season if they last long enough."

Few fans would argue that point, although given that the two have logged a combined 156 days of total "Survivor" play, not everyone is anxious to watch them again. Indeed, Probst found himself in hot water in January after telling that anyone not eager to watch Hantz's third appearance on the show in less than two years was "not really a 'Survivor' fan." That comment, however, came before the revelation that Hantz allegedly provided in-depth spoilers for both of his prior seasons. (CBS hasn't commented, but according to the "Survivor" contract, Hantz could face a $5 million penalty.) Now, Probst admits that some fans might be watching "from a point of view of 'I hope they're voted out first!'"

The Twist

But even if the duo finds their torches snuffed early, that might not take them out of the running for the million-dollar prize. This season introduces Redemption Island, allowing eliminated players a chance at re-entering the game by winning one-on-one duels against each other as they are voted out. (The first duel will take place in the third episode.) Contrary to what promos suggest, this is not the first time the series has offered contestants a shot at returning: the "Pearl Islands" season infamously brought back two players halfway through the game via the divisive "Outcasts" twist that caught contestants off-guard and remained a point of contention for fans ever since.

"The 'Outcast' scenario used in 'Pearl Islands' was just not well thought out," Probst said, promising that Redemption Island, which has been used previously on foreign versions of "Survivor," keeps things on a more level playing field. Still, some fans on "Survivor" message boards and Twitter are already opposed to the idea, pointing to a Probst quote from a 2005 Entertainment Weekly article in which he remarked, "I hated the Outcasts. I felt it went against everything we say the show is about—that if you are voted out, you are out of the game." Allegiance to that line of thinking ensured it wouldn't be easy to import the Redemption Island concept to the American show.

"It took some work to convince CBS to approve this twist, and with good reason," Probst said. "Neither [executive producer] Mark Burnett nor CBS wants to mess with a proven format, especially when it is still working so well."

The redemption angle was the basis for the Hantz and Mariano returns, as Hantz is often criticized by fans and journalists who cover the show for his poor social game and Mariano failed to even make the top half in two of his prior three appearances. Still, given that both have had more than one shot in the past, many fans on "Survivor" boards feel the opportunity at redemption should be given to players who could truly use it. Two of the more notable examples are Erik Reichenbach, the "Micronesia" contestant who was voted off after being tricked into giving up immunity, or Michael Skupin, whose "Survivor" story has remained unfinished after he was evacuated following a fall into the fire back in season two.

"Eric Reichenbach is a great young man and very charming but he isn't a strong enough character to drive a season," Probst said. "Michael Skupin is another great example of a guy we want to bring back but so far the stars haven't aligned. […] There are many other legitimate players we could have offered a second chance to but they don't have the name value or 'star value' of Rob and Russell."


The Final Tribal Council

But even if fans of the returnees are anxious to see the two face off head-to-head, their only hope is for a Redemption Island duel, as the ultimate potential showdown—the two rivals comprising the final two—can already be ruled out. As has been the case in seven of the last nine seasons, the jury will determine the winner from a pool of three finalists, a change that has been largely unpopular with fans but Probst continues to defend.

"When there is a final two, it gives a lot of power to the winner of the last immunity challenge and it makes it very tempting to just bring the 'least liked' person for an easy victory," he said. "The final three adds one more dimension, and with that dimension comes more complexity regarding who you take to the end. Now winning the final challenge doesn't mean you automatically win the game." But although Probst has said in the past that the final three would be a permanent fixture, there is hope for fans that disdain the format.

"We may do a final two again at some point," he said. "It won't be because the audience demanded it. There are times when you listen to the audience—which we do often—and there are times when you hear them but you don't heed their wishes. That's producing. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong."

With all the commotion over the returning players and the new format allowing booted players another shot, the 16 new contestants have been largely ignored by the press and in CBS's promotional efforts. However, Probst insists this is a strong group and has even predicted that "Redemption Island" will rank as one of the top five seasons. In particular, he recommends viewers keep an eye out for Natalie Tenerelli, the youngest player ever at 18; farmer Ralph Kiser, whose unshaven physique earns him Probst's curious award for "the greatest 'man sweater' in 'Survivor' history" and this season's oldest contestant, software CEO Phillip Sheppard, who may be received similarly to Hantz.

"You will love Phillip," Probst said. "You may hate him, you may laugh at him, or with him, but you will be captivated."

It remains to be seen how the new format affects the game and whether Hantz and Mariano can bring anything new to the table, but given "Survivor"'s track record over the past 11 years, fans are unlikely to be disappointed.

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