The host talks about strategy, ethics and integrity – and whether they have a place on his show

By Steve Helling
Updated February 25, 2015 03:40 PM
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

It happens during every season of Survivor: A contestant is backstabbed.

During the final tribal council, one of the competitors is inevitably shocked – shocked! – that an ally would lie to them. They throw around words like “integrity” and “honor.” Some even cry.

As the scenario unfolds, host Jeff Probst watches with an amused smile on his dimpled face. “It’s fascinating,” he tells PEOPLE. “I’m constantly entertained.”

Was he entertained while filming the show’s 30th season, premiering on CBS on Wednesday night? Probst says that Survivor: Worlds Apart, which divides its 18 contestants by profession, will be one of the franchise’s strongest seasons yet.

Sitting down with PEOPLE, Probst talks honesty, ethics and self-awareness – and their role in Survivor.

You start this season by giving contestants an honesty test. Two contestants will be broken off from their tribe and given a choice: take a big bag of food, or a smaller bag and a clue to a hidden immunity idol.
Right. And they right away have to decide, Am I going to tell everyone the truth, or will I lie? They’ll have to live with that decision.

Which would you choose?
I’d opt to tell the truth. That’s the thing about lying – it will eventually come out. And when someone is caught lying, they become a target.

So you’d go for the truth. Is it because you’re an honest person?
No. Ethics really don’t play a part of Survivor. This is a game where people mislead each other. It’s a good strategic move to lie as infrequently as possible.

But what if you were paired with a person who wanted to lie about the big bag of rice?
If he was insistent that we lie, I’d go with it, but the minute we got found out, I’d say, “I wanted to tell the truth, but he decided to lie.”

Nice. So you’re willing to throw someone else under the bus. Is that the key to winning Survivor?
No. The most important thing is to be self-aware. A lot of people think they are self-aware, but they’re not self-aware enough to realize that they’re not self-aware. I can look at a cast and choose five, six, seven or eight people who have absolutely no chance to win because they’re not self-aware enough.

Why do you cast them, if they have no chance to win?
A good season has a mix of people. There are folks who have to grow into their role. Sometimes, the people who I write off at the beginning make it very far. Like Spencer from Cagayan.

Fair enough. Now, you’ve had a few seasons you hate, and

Wait. I don’t hate seasons of Survivor. Some seasons are better than others, sure. But even our weakest seasons aren’t bad. I don’t hate them.

You hated Survivor: Guatemala. You’ve said so before, which is insane because I think Guatemala was a fantastic season.
But I didn’t hate Guatemala. It was just one of those seasons that had a lot of contestants that I personally didn’t like. It’s also about what’s going on in my personal life, my own experiences. I’m only human. But you’ve inspired me to rewatch some of Guatemala the next time I’m on location.

So let me address the elephant in the room. Last season, Survivor: San Juan Del Sur was one of your weakest seasons ever.
It ended well, but I agree that it wasn’t one of our strongest seasons. It was still interesting, and it played out in a satisfying way. I think people got spoiled because we had so many strong seasons in a row.

So what went wrong?
We made a rookie mistake. We wanted to do Blood vs. Water for a second season and made that decision without having a cast in place. So then we had to cast groups of two, and we ended up with a lot of people who just didn’t belong on Survivor. It ultimately ended up okay, but we didn’t do it right. We knew better.

So this cast is better?
Pound for pound, this is one of the best casts we’ve ever assembled. They’re just so good – and it shows. This season will be fantastic from the start.

How so?
There are some players in this game. Around the middle of the season, someone will flip this game on its head. It’ll be incredible. That’s what happens when you put people who know how to play this game.

It’s your job to tell me how wonderful a season is, I get it, but how are you going to convince people who didn’t like last season?
I’m going to issue a challenge to viewers: Watch the first episode. Just watch it with an open mind. I guarantee you’ll be hooked on the entire season if you just watch the premiere. It’s that good. I really believe that people will love this cast, love the season and everything that happens.

[Laughs.] Yes, honest.