Jeff Probst on Making 26 Days of ‘Survivor’ Hard as the Usual 39

'Survivor' host and EP Jeff Probst
(Image credit: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Survivor returns on CBS Sept. 22, as season 41 premieres. Three tribes of six will compete in what CBS calls "a faster, more intense and more dangerous season than ever before. The contestants are together for 26 days, not the usual 39, since a 14-day quarantine was required in Fiji. 

Jeff Probst, host and executive producer, shared about the “reengineered” show on the Series Business podcast. “How do you make 26 days as difficult as 39? You start with no food. And then to make it a little more difficult, you reduce rewards significantly,” he said. “And to make it more difficult, you give them a pot, a machete and a flint, and that’s it.”

Season 40, Winners at War, aired in the winter and spring of 2020. COVID held up subsequent seasons, and Probst and his fellow exec producers started rethinking the unscripted staple. “I realized this was a beautiful opportunity,” he said. “This is a time for us to truly step back and utilize this extra six months and just look at the show with no pressure. Where could we take it? What could we do? It opened up a lot of doors that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Eighteen castaways compete, including a former NFL player, Danny McCray. There are no Survivor veterans in the cast. CBS said, “The unpredictable, accelerated pace will test even the strongest superfan, as supplies are minimal, reward challenges are scarce, and players find themselves faced with advantages that could significantly help their game or, just as easily, extinguish their torch."

The new season features the so-called Game Within the Game, where viewers will have to spot a hidden rebus puzzle within the episode and solve it. Probst said the Game Within the Game is designed for kids “who dream of playing Survivor.”

Probst called the Game Within the Game an experiment. “If you really are dreaming of playing the show, then let’s get that brain starting to think the way a Survivor has to think,” he said. 

There’s also the Shot in the Dark. Each contestant has one Shot in the Dark. If you think you might get voted out, you sacrifice your vote at tribal council, reach into a bag, and hope the scroll you pick says you’re saved. 

It too is an experiment. “It’s designed to complicate the vote,” said Probst. 

I asked Probst about the Survivor contestant he thinks about the most today. He mentioned Cirie Fields, a New Jersey nurse who wasn’t particularly fit or athletic, but loved the game, played it well and came close to winning. Her audition saw her tell the producers how she used to sit on the couch and watch Survivor, then decided to get off the couch and play. 

“We had never had anyone tell us that before,” Probst said, “and it really moved us.” 

Probst is pumped to see what viewers think of season 41. It won’t be an asterisk season, he stressed. “I think, when it’s over, even the most die-hard fan will say, yeah, that was pretty intense,” said Probst. “That was pretty kick-ass, and there were no shortcuts.” 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the L.A. Times and New York magazine.