The Survivor: Cagayan host dishes about the show's 28th season

By Steve Helling
February 26, 2014 02:25 PM
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

The familiarity of Survivor has always been reassuring. The immunity challenges. The tribal councils. Jeff Probst‘s cargo shirts.

But Probst and his fellow producers like to mix it up – sometimes with better results than others. After the success of Survivor: Blood vs. Water, they had to come up with another twist to keep viewers engaged. For Survivor: Cagayan, which premieres on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET) on CBS, they decided to split the 18 contestants into three tribes: Beauty, Brains and Brawn.

Probst tells PEOPLE that the twist worked beautifully. He breaks down what we can expect – and which tribe he’d rather be on.

Last season was one of your strongest seasons ever. How do you follow up on that?
Survivor‘s been on a roll. The last three seasons have been way above average. We approach each season the same way: How do we make this season the best ever? We have a great cast, a great concept. Viewers are going to like this group of people and will be surprised at how it plays out.

You’ve divided them up into Beauty, Brains and Brawn. Which tribe would you belong on?
With my age [He’s 52], I’d be on the brains tribe, which would delight me. I like to think of myself as being smart.

So what were the reactions of the players when you told them about their tribes?
Everyone was flattered; they all thought they were on the right tribe. Morgan, who’s a young girl, said, “I don’t want to be conceited, but yeah, we’re good looking.” There was instant animosity between the tribes.

Sounds promising. How did you come up with the theme?
We already had the cast assembled. There are a couple of the contestants with 130 IQs. There was a contingent of beauty pageant winners. And we have a former NBA player in Cliff Robinson, and a couple of buff cops. So it all became clear to us.

Some of the brains look buff, and some of the beauties, well …
That’s the interesting thing. The lines are blurred. One of the brains is named Garrett, and he is the buffest, fittest guy we have out there. He’s chiseled. He could have been a beauty, but he plays poker for a living, so he’s a brain.

For the first time in several seasons, there are no returning players.
We liked these people. We did consider adding former players, but we didn’t want to get rid of anyone on this cast. So we’re doing all new, and I think there will be a few standout characters that will probably come back again someday.

Some people love returning players, some don’t. Can you explain why you often let people play multiple times?
It’s interesting to see people play and watch how their game evolves and adapts. And the audience likes a lot of these characters, and enjoys seeing them again. Obviously, everyone has an opinion and some people like all new faces, which they’re getting this season.

When you do use returning players, how do you choose? There are hundreds of former contestants.
There are two schools of thought when it comes back to bringing back players. We can bring back the most recognizable players. Or on the other side, there are great people who got voted out early and never got momentum. Take a contestant like Tanya Vance, who could have been a strong character, but got sick in Thailand and went home early. Would we put her back on the show? Probably. We had enough confidence in her to cast her the first time. But on the flip side, even superfans may wonder who she is again, which isn’t a knock to Tanya. So in an era where television is filled with stars, can you take that chance and put her on instead of Amanda Kimmel, who has played three times? There’s no right or wrong answer – it’s a creative producing decision.

Okay, back to this season. Tell me something I’m going to love.
There are two cops on the brawn tribe. Tony is a cop from Jersey. Everything about him screams “cop.” On day one, the other cop, Sarah, goes over to him and says, “Listen, I know you’re a cop.” He denies it. She says, “Badge to badge, don’t lie to me.” He still denies it. So she says, “If he’s not a cop, they should take away my badge, because I know one when I see one.” And she’s absolutely right. It’s a real cat and mouse situation. There are a lot of fascinating interactions like that.

So straight up: Is this good season?
I think people are going to like it. Every year, we want to make it our very best season. I realize that the viewers’ time is valuable, and no one wants their time to be wasted on a bad season. They expect a good show. I feel very confident that that expectation will be met on Survivor: Cagayan.