Eighteen years and 36 seasons into Survivor, longtime host Jeff Probst knows how to mix things up. This season the show is bringing back mistakes of past players to essentially “haunt” the new crop of 20 castaways.
What does that mean exactly? With former fake idols, misplayed advantages and more previous artifacts lurking on what CBS is calling “Ghost Island,” players will have to make decisions about what they’re willing to risk to gain a leg up in the competition — all while hoping they don’t repeat history.
Here, Probst breaks down the new season with Us:
Us Weekly: Tell me how the idea for Ghost Island came about.
Jeff Probst: We had the name Ghost Island for years and thought it was a fun idea, but we didn’t really have any creative that was working. We kept trying. Each year, it just didn’t come together. This year, I stumbled upon the idea of ghosts and spirits and hauntings and what it led us to was this: Ghost Island is where all the bad decisions from past players have been living and they are coming back to haunt a new group of players. So we went out and found all of the old, authentic, real immunity idols and advantages. We got some by contacting former players. We contacted memorabilia collectors and said, “Hey, are you the one that has the idol that JT misplayed? Could we borrow that for a season?” So what we have is an island filled with all of these actual Survivor relics, so when someone digs up an advantage of any kind, it will have a note that says, “This was misplayed in Survivor: China 10 years ago.” The question becomes, “Is it haunted”? And if so, can you reverse the curse? And the funny part about it is that it’s a corny idea that really worked. Once you say to somebody, “This has bad mojo, by the way.” It gets in their head. “This was misplayed and now I have to play it correctly.” They start to second guess what they are going to do because they don’t want to make the same mistake.
Us: Is that the only way that idols and advantages are introduced this season, via Ghost Island?
JP: They are introduced in other ways as well. And every week, somebody will go to Ghost Island. It’s a real place. It’s a very dense, spooky jungle. And if you have to spend the night there, it becomes even more eery. It’s pitch black and there are critters in the ground. And every so often, Ghost Island will tempt players with an opportunity to win an advantage if they are willing to risk their vote. So the entire season is based around what decision to make and when. Do you risk your vote to get an advantage on Ghost Island? Are you able to play an idol correctly when the guy who had it before you didn’t? If you’re a Survivor fan, you know our history is filled with dozens and dozens of fantastic, bad decisions.
Us: It’s results-oriented though, right? A bad mistake might have had the potential when it was just an idea.
JP: I think there’s potential in most bad mistakes because the advantage the audience has is that they have all the information. The players have very little information. A player might have an advantage in their hand. But whether to use it or not comes from either instinct or rumor or reading somebody’s body language. They’re at a real deficit in terms of their knowledge so when they misplay it, it seems obvious to us. But to them, it wasn’t obvious, which is why bad decisions aren’t necessarily an illustration of a bad player. It’s just a bad decision. Survivor has way more bad decisions than good decisions.
Us: Looking back at how the twists all came together to out Cirie Fields in Game Changers and seeing how the advantages had expiration dates last season, what can we expect this time around?
JP: Every season, we try to tweak the advantages and the twists a little bit. And it’s not necessarily so we can head only in that direction, but that we now have yet another direction we can head. What I like to do at the beginning of our creative meetings is list every single advantage that’s ever been used in the game. And then as a team, we say, “Which ones do we want to play?” Players have no idea. One day you can dig up an advantage that’s the greatest thing that ever happened to you. The next day, you can dig up something in the same spot that just hurt you. That’s the risk and reward. You don’t know if it’s good or bad. You don’t know if you should keep it or get rid of it. You’re not sure if you should play it or hold on to it. All those things come into play, which is why Survivor is so fun to watch and extremely difficult to win.
Us: Is it true you cast a lot of fans this season? Do they have an inherent advantage because they know the history of these mistakes?
JP: Pretty much everyone this season is familiar with the show. I don’t think anyone is at a real disadvantage. I think what the impact will be is gameplay straight out of the gate. With every season of Survivor, it gets more and more difficult to hide. There’s this weird vetting process that happens within the game. It is this: players look at other players as if they have an implied agreement. “We’re both trying to take each other out. We know that. But we’re playing. What we’re not going to to do is let someone slide under the radar and get past us.” Nobody wants that. So the people who don’t play — not always but typically — they get voted out because the players all agree to have a “player” win. So that ups the ante. The invoice to play this game — you have to play. You can’t just sit on the sidelines and say “Good job, team.” You have to get in there and ask for the ball and take a shot. I love that. It rewards gameplay and gameplay is what makes Survivor interesting.
Us: What went behind the decision to give them less food this season?
JP: I wondered what would happen if you reduced the food even more. Would it give more power and make a provider more valuable? So somebody who’s willing to fish, now has some currency. They’re able to say, “There’s not much rice. So if you want me to keep fishing, you gotta keep me around.” It’s an experiment we’re trying to see what happens. We’re always trying to evaluate: where is the social currency in the game? One of the things that is always up for grabs is: what is an advantage? You don’t know until you get your society together. We may find that being super tall is an advantage because there are bananas up in that tree. We may also find that being old is a disadvantage because everybody is young. You don’t know until you get your group together. We’re always trying to play with those ingredients.
Us: Any last minute teasers for tonight’s two-hour season premiere?
JP: We have this dense, scary jungle that each week, somebody is going to get sent to. It’s a reminder how real Survivor is. It’s one thing to live in a jungle with eight or nine other people. It’s another thing to be taken by a little boat and be dropped on a gigantic island. And left alone. If you can make fire, great. If you can cook that little bit of rice, fantastic. You’ll be sleeping under 30 snuffers from past seasons reminding you of death. And any critters you hear in the night, you’re on your own. It’s pretty unnerving for some.
Survivor premieres on CBS Wednesday, February 28 at 8 p.m. ET. For more with Probst, listen to our new Watch With Us podcast!