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 On Survivor, silence is golden

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PostSubject: On Survivor, silence is golden   Sun Dec 14, 2008 3:07 am

Alex Strachan,
Published: Thursday, December 11, 2008

Silence is golden. And knowing when to shut up is the key to running a memorable tribal council in Survivor, Jeff Probst says.

It's a tough lesson to learn. And it took the host of one of TV's most culture-defining reality-competition programs a long time to learn it, Probst says now.

Probst's admission came near the end of a long, wide-ranging conversation, in which the Emmy Award-winning "host with the most" talked about the vagaries of human nature; the inevitable clash of personalities when people are dropped unprepared into a stressful, outdoors situation; and how, after signing a two-year contract extension in 2006, Probst was ready to hand off Survivor's hosting duties to a new adjudicator.
Knowing when to shut up is the key to running a memorable tribal council in Survivor, Jeff Probst says.

"I have stopped interrupting at tribal council," he said quietly. "You started seeing that during Survivor: Palau, but you're really seeing it this season. I used to try to edit moments in my mind. Somebody would say something and I would try to put a button on it in my mind We can use that.' I was getting bored with that, though. I thought to myself, I want to see what happens if I say less. I'm going to ask a question, and -- like any good interviewer -- once they start talking, I'm not going to say anything. I'm going to let them fill the void.' And it's been magical.

"It's a tough discipline to learn, but once you get it, it takes on a life of its own."

Around the time of Survivor's 10th season, in 2005, Probst was starting to think there was nothing he hadn't seen or heard during Survivor's innumerable tribal councils over the years. He was getting jaded. He seriously thought about bailing out on Survivor's game of outwit/outplay/outlast when his contract was up at the beginning of this year.

Instead, he found himself infused with renewed energy and enthusiasm. He no longer felt the need to punctuate every castaway's remark with one of his own. To fill the uncomfortable silence, the castaways would blurt out things they wouldn't otherwise have said, often with unintended consequences.

Once the castaways began saying and doing the unexpected, the game changed -- both for Probst and for the show itself. In February, Probst signed on for four more seasons, which will take him through the end of 2010.

Human nature is what it is, Probst says. When people gather around a campfire at night, whoever is speaking invariably follows a certain protocol. First comes the spin -- the part that's calculated to have a calming, diplomatic effect on the others listening in -- and then, after a pause, the speaker reveals what he, or she, is really thinking.

"We have had more arguments at tribal council in the past three seasons than we ever did in the past," Probst explained. "And I can see it's directly related to me just shutting up."

What the viewer sees of tribal council at home is very different from the way it plays out in actuality, Probst says. What may take five minutes on TV can actually take 45 minutes or more in real time. The program's editors then take the video footage and assemble a tight, five-minute narrative of tribal council that hits all the conversational high points.

When Probst counts the final votes, the process can take 10-15 minutes, even though it seems like mere seconds on the screen.

Probst and the producers decide how those votes will be read out, and in what order. Everything is calculated to maximize suspense for the viewer watching at home. Not a single moment passes onscreen in Survivor that hasn't been thought-out in advance.

"We chart out stories for all 16 or 18 or 20 of our people," Probst said. "We know their arcs. They grow from being this person to that person, from start to finish, and we're always laying clues. Sometimes those clues are there to mislead you, sometimes not. We're very careful to put things in at the beginning that will make sense at the end, and that's true of the way we put together the final cut of our tribal councils, as well."

Survivor is the antithesis of a live broadcast like American Idol. It's storytelling in its purest form, where an all-seeing narrative voice decides how much will be revealed to the audience, and when.

Probst knows which two castaways made it through to Survivor Gabon's live finale. He won't tip his hand as to who they may be, but there are certain constants that emerge in any Survivor, he believes.

Somebody will invariably make a mistake in trying to convince the jury to vote their way, for one.

And he's still capable of being surprised, for another. He expected Amanda Kimmel to win the jury vote over eventual winner Parvati Shallow in Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites, for example, but Kimmel faltered in her final stump speech.

And then there was 2002's Survivor: Amazon, where swimsuit model and "spoiled brat" -- Probst's words at the time -- Jenna Morasca won the jury vote by a 6-1 margin over hard-working, likable Matthew von Ertfelda.

Probst still hasn't forgotten his surprise at that result.

Economic need plays a bigger role in the jury's final decision than many viewers might expect, Probst realizes now.

North American society doesn't have the same social class system that characterizes many European societies, but Americans in particular are sensitive to any perceived economic disparity or inequality.

Morasca argued that she was a hard-working single woman who needed the million-dollar prize more than Ertfelda, who she successfully painted as an independently wealthy, globe-trotting dilettante who was only in Survivor for the laughs. In the end, that economic argument was the decisive factor in swaying the jury to her side, Probst believes.

"The money factor comes up a lot, and I think it's why people who've done well in life always try or consider that they have to hide that," Probst said. "If you're a young, good-looking guy, and you tell people you're a doctor, say, do you think I'm going to vote for you to also win a million dollars? I don't even know you and I'm already irritated.

"The game is about not being voted out. How do you avoid being voted out? Any reason you give somebody to vote you out is a strike against you. Money, success, opportunity, good looks -- all those things work against you in Survivor."

Asked if talking about Survivor: Amazon and Fans vs. Favorites was a way of deflecting unhealthy curiosity about Survivor Gabon's eventual outcome, Probst laughed. It was a warm, friendly laugh.

"You might be right," he said.


Survivor Gabon: Earth's Last Eden airs Thursdays on Global and CBS at 8 ET/PT. The two-hour finale, followed by a live reunion program, will air Sunday, Dec. 14.

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PostSubject: Re: On Survivor, silence is golden   Sun Dec 14, 2008 3:06 pm

I guess Jeff finally realized we wanted to hear more from the survivors and less Jeff.
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PostSubject: Re: On Survivor, silence is golden   Sun Dec 14, 2008 6:04 pm

lol guess so!

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PostSubject: Re: On Survivor, silence is golden   Sun Dec 14, 2008 8:14 pm

love hearing what happens when Jeff says less but still gotta love the little barbs he throws out there every once in a while.

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PostSubject: Re: On Survivor, silence is golden   Mon Dec 15, 2008 8:52 pm

I loved how he called out Corinne and the audience booed.
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PostSubject: Re: On Survivor, silence is golden   Today at 3:48 am

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