The Tribe Is Still Speaking: Jeff Probst Looks Back On 'Survivor,' 15 Years After Its Premiere
Thirty-nine days, sixteen people, one Survivor — and fifteen years.
That's how long it's been since "Survivor" premiered. Families settled into their couches on May 31, 2000, and traveled via television to Pulau Tiga, an island off the coast of Borneo, populated by a former Navy SEAL, a doctor with a nipple ring, an idealistic whitewater rafting instructor, a Wisconsin truck driver with a preference for snakes over rats, and a big bearded man with a fondness for his birthday suit, among others. Men and women, young and old alike, tuned in and out each week to see which of these sixteen Americans would outlast all the others and emerge victorious as the winner of a million dollar prize.
Few people were more invested in the outcome than Jeff Probst, the show's Emmy-winning host. When he first set foot on the beaches of Borneo, Probst had no idea he was embarking on a journey that would spawn more than 30 more iterations of the wilderness-based strategy competition, and would define the next 15 years of his life.
"When I think back on it, in many ways, it actually feels like a different show," Probst told MTV News. "That first season, we went out into the jungle, we shot for 39 days, in some ways making it up as we went along. There was such a feeling of, 'Let's throw a play up in the barn and see if anyone comes up to watch it.' Unlike a scripted show where you might write a pilot and then shoot it and it gets on the air and over the next several months, you're shooting thirteen episodes and you're finding them as you go, 'Survivor' was an all-in purchase, an all-in bet from the beginning."
In other words, there was no way audience feedback could determine the outcome of the show. Original "Survivor" sweetheart (and future Rob Schneider co-star) Colleen Haskell could have all the fans in the world, but nothing could save her from the fact that she would be voted out of the game with two full episodes remaining.
The same can be said for Rudy Boesch, the 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran who famously didn't "even know what MTV means." (No offense taken, Rudy.) For millions of viewers, Rudy was the fan-favorite contestant, what with his no-filter commentary on his fellow castaways ("I don't like her, and I never will" and "He's fat but he's good" spring to mind as two of his tamer remarks) and his emphasis on actual jungle survival, rather than playing any kind of social game. Rudy wasn't just a fan-favorite, either; the "Survivor" team loved him as well.
"We all thought Rudy would win for sure," said Probst. "The final challenge was this very basic endurance challenge where you just had to stand and hold your hand on an idol. We looked around and went, 'Rudy's never going to lose this.' We were kind of celebrating that we'd come out to do this show, and the most likable and root-worthy guy is going to win… and then, Rudy dropped out, inexplicably."
With Rudy out of the challenge, the stage was set for a final showdown between manipulative alliance builder Richard Hatch, and challenge-dominating free-spirit Kelly Wiglesworth. After a final tribal council, featuring a Hall of Fame reality television moment when trucker Sue Hawk gave her notorious "snakes and rats" speech to Kelly, the season ended with the villainous Richard beating Kelly by a single vote margin — a single vote that filled the makers of "Survivor" with dread.
"We thought the show would be a disaster now that Richard won," Probst said. "He wasn't likable. People might think he's a villain. He's manipulative, playing people, playing on their emotions… we thought our dreams had vanquished."
But it wasn't a disaster at all. Viewers were already hooked on "Survivor," no matter the outcome, with 51.7 million people tuning in to watch Hatch win the game. An audience poll during the finale revealed that 61% of viewers felt Richard played a fair game, and that 49% of viewers would play exactly how he played.
"As it turns out, Richard winning became the very best thing that could have happened to this show, because of all the qualities we feared," Probst said. "The lesson from the first season of 'Survivor' is that there's no such thing as a good winner or a bad winner."
Hatch's win set the tone for the future of "Survivor," paving the way for a cutthroat game where terms like "alliance" and "blindside" stopped becoming dirty words, and became essential parts of the show's vernacular. It's hard to imagine a world where the more likable Kelly wins over Richard; at least, it's hard to imagine "Survivor" still airing today, all these years later.
For what it's worth, Kelly now has an opportunity to show us what that alternate history might have looked like; she's one of 20 returning players invited back for "Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance," the show's 31st season, airing in the fall.
"Kelly represents the idea behind the season," Probst said. "What if she had gotten one more vote? What would have happened? What would have happened to 'Survivor,' and what would have happened to her life?"
Both Kelly and Probst are celebrating today's 15 year anniversary of the "Survivor" premiere the same way — by filming "Survivor." The contestant and host are both in a new exotic location, 15 years and 30 seasons later, testing out the latest iteration of the historic television series. And while we're a long way from the 51.7 million viewers of the "Survivor" finale, the show remains reliable as ever, hovering over a consistent number of about 10 million viewers each and every week, and pumping out seasons that are more often hit than miss — even if there have been misses along the way.
"If we try something dramatic and it doesn't work, we trust that our audience will come back next season," Probst said. "If something works? Great. If it doesn't? We'll try something different. We have a much more actively engaged audience than almost any other show, where they feel they're a part of our show — because they are."
When asked about the enduring appeal of "Survivor," 15 years after its premiere, Probst took a page out of the George R.R. Martin playbook, comparing the island intrigue to the wicked world of Westeros.
"It's like 'Game of Thrones,'" he said of "Survivor," and how it's played. "You are holding the Wall at all times. Winter is coming. There's a new challenge to the throne every day — and you are the throne. You have to hold your ground. That sometimes means slaying somebody. Sometimes it means trusting somebody. Sometimes it means lying to somebody, or three people. But there are consequences for your actions. On one level, 'Survivor' is this devilishly entertaining show where you get to watch people get what they deserve — and sometimes, it's just the most joyful thing."
"The game is a living, breathing thing," he added. "And you are the game."
In the 15 years since "Survivor" premiered, Probst has encountered fans from all walks of life. It's at the point that he can spot an entire family of "Survivor" viewers on the street, "just by the way they're dressed and their attitude."
"Nine times out of ten, they'll stop me and say, 'I just have to say, we love watching the show with our kids,'" Probst said. "And that's the magic of this. You can watch this show as an adult and get it. You can watch it as a 7-year-old and get it. Because it is us."