Although Survivor is entering its 29th season, Jeff Probst clearly remembers every one of the 442 contestants, and can pull obscure trivia out of the air.
His excitement about the reality show is unwavering – impressive, considering that it debuted during the Clinton administration. “Every single season is a different show,” he tells PEOPLE. “We’re constantly reinventing ourselves.”
But sometimes, ideas are recycled. 2013’s Survivor: Blood vs. Water was such a compelling season that producers are doing it again, casting pairs of contestants with some sort of existing relationship – married couples, siblings, dating pairs, parent-child. The result, Survivor: San Juan Del Sur, premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
What would Probst, 52, do if he were competing against his wife? The longtime host weighed in on that and more.
You’re a married man. If you were to play Survivor with your wife, would you vote her off?
Absolutely. Lisa and I would have a simple code. Whenever we’d see each other, we’d hold up our fingers. One finger would mean, ‘I love this. Everything’s going great.’ Five fingers would mean ‘I’m in trouble and I’m ready to go.’ If she held up one, I’d do what I could to keep her in the game. If she gave me four or five, I’d gut her – and then I’d use that move to my advantage. Of course, I say that now, but if I saw someone messing with my wife, I’d go crazy.
Who says you’d be in a position to protect her?
(Laughs.) That’s true. With Blood vs. Water, you never know who’s protecting who. Lisa has what it takes to win, so maybe she’d be protecting me.
This is the second Blood vs. Water season in a year. Why’d you return to the format so quickly?
It delivers emotionally. It’s hard for a mom to decide whether to vote out her daughter. This time, everyone is brand new; no one knows each other. There’s a contingent that says, ‘Let’s keep pairs as long as possible.’ But at some point, having a loved one in the game is a liability. It’s tricky maneuvering.
I have to be honest about this cast, Jeff. There are a lot of six-pack abs. Who will I identify with?
I hear you, but this game has gotten harder over the years. There’s less food. The conditions are harsher. There are less people who are really, truly out of shape who want to do the show.
I don’t know. Last season’s cast was stellar – and many of them were average people.
Point taken. It was a great cast. People like Spencer surprised me and really delivered a good season, and several of them will probably play again. But there are great people in this cast, too. Josh and Jeremy are really sharp players and will be the kingpins of strategy.
You lost two contestants before the game even started. You’re starting with 10 men and 8 women. Does that freak you out?
I used to worry a lot more. I see that the game has its own rhythm. We’re never happy when people have to drop out at the last minute, but you have to say, ‘This is who we have left, and they’re going to make the game into something new.’
Were there casting problems this season?
Whenever you cast two people from the same family, it’s a bigger challenge to find good contestants. You have to look a lot harder to find good pairs. Last [Blood vs. Water] season, there were some contestants who were brought on because their loved one was so interesting, and they might not have normally made the show. We worked hard to keep that from happening this season.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: Lots of people are complaining on social media because you put John Rocker on the season.
When it comes to putting people like him on the show, you have to swing for the fence. We had to decide how John would impact the audience. For me, it was a simple decision: he made controversial statements, none of which I condone. And he has to deal with that baggage. If your true character is to be a loudmouth – and that’s John Rocker – then that will be dealt with.
So you’re glad you put him on the show?
Yes. We look for people who will bring gameplay and personality to the show. John Rocker will do that. Putting a cast together is like building a family, and starting the show is like sending your oldest child off to college. You don’t know what will happen, and there’s not a lot you can do at that point. We’ve lost people on Day 3 that we thought would be a perennial all-star.
I understand that it’s the luck of the draw. Had her tribe lost the first challenge back in Pearl Islands, [two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine] could have been the first person voted out and we wouldn’t remember her. Or in Palau, someone like, say, Coby Archa, might have gone further if he hadn’t been on such a dominant tribe.
You’re exactly right. We try to cast people who have what it takes to win the entire show. That’s the beauty of Survivor; you never know what’s going to happen!