|A Fallen Idol: The Decline of Jeff Probst||| Print ||
|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Sunday, 02 November 2008 19:00|
Survivor has been on the air for eight years now. That’s 17 seasons of alliances, backstabbing, blindsides at tribal council, and hungry people fighting. All the best that reality television has to offer! The spectacular locations in which the show has been filmed have generally been of tropical climate, producing plenty of ratings-bumping shots of "waitresses" (read: struggling actresses) from L.A. in bikinis. The show has been to Africa (twice), the islands of Micronesia (countless times), Australia, Thailand, China, the Amazon, Guatemala, and Panama (three times).
Over the span of so many seasons, the Survivor formula has remained pretty much the same. If you have watched any of the show’s 17 seasons, you know that 15-20 Americans are "stranded" in an exotic location for 33 days. Every three days, someone is voted out of the game by their peers. This continues until the two (or three) contestants remain, and a jury of nine cast-offs vote for the person they believe deserves the title of "sole survivor," a prize of $1 million, and, usually, some crappy car (the Pontiac Aztec was the first car awarded if that is any indication of quality). Contestants are free to vote for whichever player they deem most worthy. Over the years, several themes on which people base their vote have emerged. Here is the short list:
1. Spite - A great many votes have been cast simply for the lesser of two evils in the final two. The original spite vote came from season one’s Sue Hawk, who was so angry that her friend and alliance partner Kelly Wiglesworth turned on her that she voted for her foe Richard Hatch. Hawk’s legendary "snakes and rats" speech is referenced by angry contestants to this day.
2. Loyalty - Many votes are cast for the person who never lied, and did their best to protect their tribemates from the inevitable boot. Season one’s Rudy Boesch voted for Rich Hatch, because he played no role in voting Rudy out at the final four tribal council.
3. Strength - Physical strength does not hold as much sway as some people on the show (ahem, Jeff Probst, ahem) would like to think; however, some contestants vote for a winner based on their physical dominance in challenges and around camp (Survivor: Australian Outback finalist Colby Donaldson won the last five individual immunity idol challenges thanks to his physical skills). The strength vote is kind of a Hail Mary for a juror who doesn’t know which way to vote.
4. Strategy - The strategy vote is given when the juror respects the way someone played the game, tricked their competitors, or outplayed all of the other contestants. Like the strength vote, this one is not too common. It takes a certain kind of person to admit that they were outsmarted and then applaud the person who did so. Survivor: The Amazon winner Jenna Morasca was overwhelmingly voted the winner (six to one) because of her strategy and game play.
What is interesting about the way people vote for the sole survivor is the extent to which they follow or disregard the narrative and themes as packaged by the show’s producers. Most of the above mentioned themes are encapsulated in the official tagline, "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast", but another major influence on the game’s outcome comes in the form of a single individual: host Jeff Probst.
In the early seasons of Survivor, Probst’s enthusiasm jumped from the screen. He was young, good-looking, good-natured, and excited to be on the cutting edge of television. He obviously cared about the integrity of the game and its players (his absolute disgust was palpable when Osten Taylor from Survivor: Pearl Islands decided to quit the game). As host, Probst is hugely important to the show. In fact, the way he contextualizes the game to the audience and the players through his narration can significantly affect the final outcome. Which is why his behavior in recent seasons has been particularly unsettling.
It seems 17 seasons of hard work and travel have put him in a cranky mood, for something has most definitely turned in Probst. It was first apparent when Survivor: China aired in the fall of 2007. Probst’s love affair with the physically well-built (if not particularly athletic) gravedigger James Clement was particularly annoying. James was voted out while holding not one but TWO hidden immunity idols, which he was tricked by his tribemates into not using. Yet Probst made no critical comments regarding Clement’s poor strategizing, despite the fact that he was more than willing to eviscerate Jaime Dugan for attempting to play a blank piece of wood that she thought could be the idol,, and he ripped into Peih-Gee Law and Jaime for choosing to throw a challenge that ended up putting them in a better strategic position.
Whatever Jeff Probst and the writers and producers of the show believe the game to be about is what gets promoted both to the home audience and the players within the game. The physically strong players are constantly praised and lauded, and those who try to employ different strategies to get around the physical aspects of the game are inconsistently and haphazardly praised or trashed.
In the most recent season of the show, Survivor: Gabon, Probst has gone out of his way to emphasize how "weak" and "pathetic" the Fang tribe has been (even though they have won a fair number of challenges and the players in the two tribes have been swapped around). The "previously on" recaps at the beginning of each episode are shockingly biased, making the Kota tribe appear like challenge gods and the Fang tribe seem like a bunch of losers. Probst picks on the Fang tribe during challenges, and specifically called out 61 year old Gillian Larson for not helping in physical challenges. When Gillian kept up with the 25 year olds running across a huge hillside in the reward challenge from the second episode of the season, Probst said nothing.
The host’s bias towards the physical side of the game reveals a misunderstanding of what the show is really about. As loyal viewers know, the way to win the game is by the developing strong personal relationships and then convincingly selling your overall strategy to the jury. Physical strength is certainly important, as it frequently determines how often a certain tribe has to go to tribal council and who is able to win the coveted individual immunity idols, but, if the case of Colby in season two is any indication, physical dominance only takes a player so far.
Perhaps the show has become one of those older series, desperately clinging to its former glory, but if the producers would re-examined the way they present the narrative created by the host, it could potentially return to its glory days. Survivor needs to get back to basics: backstabbing, blindsides, and hungry people fighting.