Reality-TV reunion

Friday, January 30, 2004

NEW YORK -- How will "Survivor: All-Stars" differ from bygone "Survivor" series? Just ask Jeff Probst, host of this CBS back-to-nature game show, who got a clue early on.

"We were waiting to start the first challenge," he recalls, "and one of the castaways says, 'Hey, Probst! Production slowing us up?"'

Instantly he knew what he was dealing with. "This group of castaways has been on 'Oprah' and 'Regis.' They're TV-savvy -- or think they are."

Add in the fact that these recycled contestants are familiar with each other -- and that the audience probably knows them better than most presidential candidates -- and this "Survivor" looks to be a whole new game. (It premieres Sunday after the Super Bowl telecast on CBS, then claims a regular time slot at 7 p.m. Thursdays.)

In its first seven editions, "Survivor" made history by turning unknown contestants into celebrity adventurers. Thrust into the wilds -- maybe the Australian outback or a tropical isle -- each band of castaways battled the elements and one another vying for the $1 million prize as "sole survivor."

The original "Survivor" was a cultural phenomenon, seizing the public's attention during the summer of 2000 and, with its finale that August, grabbing 51 million viewers -- a huge 45 percent share of everyone watching TV. Returning every few months, each subsequent edition has been a big attraction.

Meanwhile, "Survivor" has continued to make instant personalities of many of the castaways: cranky Rudy Boesch; Colby Donaldson, the All-American hunk; "dragon lady" Shii Ann Huang; diabolical Richard Hatch; and tough Sue Hawk.

For Probst, whose "Survivor" duties include referee, inquisitor and provocateur, these "All-Stars" contestants presented some new wrinkles, he explained during a chat with a reporter in New York.

Originating from the same setting off the Panama coast as "Survivor: Pearl Islands" (whose finale aired Dec. 14), "All-Stars" was introducing no novices who, at least initially, "are easy to manage and to strike fear into," Probst says with a chuckle. "This bunch arrived confident that they had anticipated every twist we were going to come up with."

Even before the 39-day contest got under way in November, they had put Probst on notice: They would be guarding against his interrogations at the "tribal councils," those torch-lit encounter sessions where players often speak more freely than they should -- right before ballots are cast voting one of them off.

"One by one, they e-mailed me or called before we got out there and said, 'I just want to let you know: I'm not gonna give you anything good at tribal council.'

"I went into the game thinking, 'How am I gonna get good stuff out of these guys?' And it turned out I got the best stuff I've ever gotten."

Probst's counterstrategy: Use their confidence against them or, in his words, "Just ride the horse in the direction it's going. If these people believe they're running the show, let 'em KEEP thinking it."

Bottom line: Probst might be the most skillful "Survivor" player of all.

With a canny understanding of his castaways and dimples you could make camp in, Probst, now 41, debuted with "Survivor" four years ago after serving as host of several shows for the FX network, as well as on the VH1 game show "Rock and Roll Jeopardy." But these are credits that don't suggest his skill as a combination Mr. Roarke and Dr. Phil.

"Probst is aptly named: On 'Survivor,' he's a prober, not simply a presenter," says Neal Gabler, a cultural critic who wrote "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

"There's not only tension between the participants in the game," Gabler says, "but also between them and the game, and Probst is the embodiment of that. It's not enough that the contestants are pitted against one another, and against Nature -- they're also up against forces represented by Jeff."

Indeed, Probst represents the force that even supersedes nature: television.

Without it there would be no "Survivor." No immunity challenges, mock rituals or overwrought catch phrases like "the tribe has spoken." No growing liturgy of different styles for play that range from hard labor to shrewd alliances to Machiavellian backstabbing.

No outrageous falsehoods, like that of "Pearl Islands" castaway Jon Dalton, who, to win sympathy, lied about his grandmother's death.

"I believed it when he said it," Probst laughs. "I love that stuff! He was really playing the game!

"This isn't 'The Bachelor,' or 'Fear Factor,' where people eat something disgusting then get to go home. And it isn't 'The Apprentice,"' he adds, citing the new NBC hit from "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett where contestants compete to land a plum job working for tycoon Donald Trump, who at the end of each episode "fires" one of them.

"They've got a great back door: Donald Trump -- i.e., the producers -- decide who goes or stays," Probst observes. "They're guaranteed to keep their best characters." On "Survivor," by contrast, the players make the call with no regard for a castaway's entertainment value.

But that shouldn't be a problem for "All-Stars."

"We had 18 proven reality-show participants," Probst says, "and they all delivered. Nobody let us down in terms of drama.

"This was the hardest 'Survivor,"' he adds. "In the past, Mark has worried about dehydration, loss of morale. This time, we kicked 'em hard. When they thought it was gonna get better -- it didn't! To their credit, they just fought on."

With eight editions of the show behind him, Probst freely admits he never dreamed it would last.

"I thought you couldn't make it work a second time," he says, "but I knew we'd try, because we'd get the advertisers. And I thought it would die.

"Then, after the third one, from Africa -- which never really paid off, in my mind, but people still watched -- I started thinking, 'We really have a structure that's interesting, compelling."'

Steve Sternberg, a media analyst for Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA, agrees.

While dozens of so-called "reality shows" have sprung up since "Survivor" rocked the landscape, "it's in a category all by itself," Sternberg says. "It has caught on with people, and it's going to go on and on."

And for the next four editions after "All-Stars," Probst is signed to remain part of the game plan.

The continuing appeal for him is "Survivor's" storytelling.

"I love watching layers of a character peel away, I love watching someone's core revealed," explains Probst, who wrote and directed the 2001 character study "Finder's Fee" and has another feature film in mind.

"People sometimes say to me, 'Ah, you're just a game-show host.' Maybe to them. To me, this is part of my ongoing search for truth."

Of course, the most sought-after bit of truth among "Survivor" fans now becomes: Who will be the sole survivor of "All-Stars"?

The results of the vote won't be revealed to the world -- or even to the players, who submitted their ballots before shooting wrapped in December -- until the series finale weeks from now. And Probst insists he doesn't know.

"But I could tell you who won," he says with a grin, "and you wouldn't know if I was telling the truth. I'm so tempted to do that: start dropping clues."

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