The Real Survivor

Two of the participants of the 17th season of the American version of "Survivor" include Crystal Cox, an Olympic gold medalist in track, and Jessica "Sugar" Kiper, who was featured in the TV series "The Gilmore Girls." After an all-star season where favorites competed against fans, for a minute it seemed the reality show might be undergoing another change - instead of featuring anonymous participants, they may now turn to (second-rate) celebrities. Who knows? Maybe the next phase would be to use a few good actors and write a screenplay for them - then we will have come full circle, having returned to the starting point of TV production.

No need to worry, it seems the format of the series won't be changing soon. First of all, the other participants are not familiar with Cox or for that matter Kiper.

In the first episode, Cox introduces herself as a kindergarten teacher, in order not to arouse antagonism. The physical abilities of the tall, athletic woman are not evident either. What is clear is that she finds it hard to climb a mountain in a dress (in which she arrived for the first episode).

Over the past years, the only person who has become the star of the program is Jeff Probst, the relaxed host in the blue safari shirt, who always seems somewhat amused by the intrigues taking place around him, and can pinpoint the weak points among the tribe members, just a short moment before extinguishing the torch of those voted off, in a somewhat overly dramatic manner. In the past he even said that, "In spite of the first seven or eight weeks when every reviewer wanted to vote me off the island, I'm optimistic enough to believe that now people actually get that I understand that 'Survivor' is tongue-in-cheek."

Probst hosted the most recent Emmy Awards, held in September, along with four other reality show hosts. While they all failed as emcees and were criticized for it, Probst nevertheless received an award as host of his own reality show.

The high point of the awards ceremony, he says in a phone conversation from Los Angeles, was when Jon Hamm, the star of the series "Mad Men," approached him behind the scenes and complimented him on his work, telling him he deserved the prize. Probst admires Hamm, who plays a senior advertising executive in Matthew Weiner's series. He watched the show's first season on DVD while on set in Africa, during the filming of the "Survivor" season that will kick off tonight on Yes Stars 2: "Gabon - Earth's Last Eden." In the time allotted to us we did not manage to discuss the fact that his program may terminally damage this last Eden - both in terms of ecology and the tourist interest it will arouse.

Probst spoke willingly and generously about every topic raised, including his failure in hosting the Emmy ceremony.

He admitted his embarrassment at his performance (he actually said he was "humbled"), without making any excuses.

Probst also explains that the format of "Survivor" is not in danger. "An Allstar season is obviously a trick, something you can only do once every few seasons. We've invested in these players. The audience loved them. Watching an Allstar's season is different than watching a regular season, same as in sports - you come to watch Ozzie or James [participants from the show's fans versus favorites season]. The audience is aware that they have an advantage, and in fact they were much better than the fans."

Toward the end of the Emmy ceremony Probst thanked the academy and the audience for allowing reality in, as he put it. He admitted over the phone that he still feels like a trespasser on television and in the Emmys, although he definitely thinks there is a place for reality. "Reality is a legitimate form of television and it will be more so as time will go by. The gesture now might have been a bit forced, but still it's a start," he says.

His personal tastes are quite different. The programs he watches when he is far away on location, on stranded islands and nature preserves, while the participants are sleeping in tumbledown huts or on the various Exile Islands and voting each other off, are high-quality American series, such as "The Shield," "Weeds," and "Entourage." "Ironically," he adds, Jeremy Piven, who plays Ari in the latter daring and clever HBO comedy, was the first to criticize reality show hosts, at the very Emmy stage on which Probst was awarded. Piven also won an Emmy for his character in "Entourage" this year.

Stretching the limits of tolerance

Probst, who will be celebrating his 47th birthday a week from now, is known mainly as the host of "Survivor." Before the reality show, he moderated negligible programs, such as the trivia quiz program "Rock and Roll Jeopardy" on VH1 in the late 1990s. He is even less famous as a director and screenwriter of independent films. But his film "Finder's Fee" (2001) participated in several independent film festivals, receiving good reviews and even winning important prizes. It is purely by chance that the film is about a young man in his 20s who finds a wallet with a winning lottery ticket worth $3 million (Probst began working as the host of "Survivor," whose winner receives $1 million, long after he finished writing the screenplay for "Finder's Fee"). In other words, "Finder's Fee," starring James Earl Jones and Robert Forster, also deals with the question of what happens to morals and integrity when confronted with a huge sum of money.

Probst has been busy writing a new screenplay for the past year and a half, "which I hope to make." For now the fact that he has signed a contract to host another three seasons of "Survivor" (at least until its 20th season), and the fact that he will also host a new show by producer Mark Burnett, will probably delay production on his second film. On paper, the new show slightly stretches the limits of tolerance for reality. It is called "Live Like You're Dying" and its participants are suffering from a terminal illness and have a limited time left to live.

During this time, said Probst in an announcement that appeared on the Web site of Entertainment Weekly a week ago, they will be taken "on the last adventure of their life ... The adventure will include reunions with lost friends or formerly feuding family members," or simply the fulfillment of dreams, like "playing the guitar with Eric Clapton or jumping out of a plane into a volcano," Probst is quoted as saying.

Perhaps after the fulfillment of all these dreams, Probst will fulfill his own dream of directing another one of his films. Until then he will continue to accompany the Survivors.

Do you think that as a participant you would go far in the game?

Probst: "I think I would get pretty far in the game. There's more chance of loosing than winning, of course, but still I think I'd get pretty far. John Nash, the mathematician whose life's story was portrayed in 'A Beautiful Mind,' invented a card game with chips called 'Fuck your neighbor.' The aim of the game was to be the last couple standing.

"He explained the rules very clearly - you were supposed to make alliances and gradually cut them off. Even though he explained this, they still were hurt when he cut them off. I think the same goes for Survivor. I guess that if I would play I'd make a strong alliance and then at the right moment cut them loose. I'd recommend them to do the same, to hold on to it as long as it works for them. The question is who will let go first. That's how it goes."

In the first episode of the 17th season, which will be aired tonight, Probst is seen running quickly from one point to another, to get to the place to which the members of the various tribes run through an obstacle course. In the past, he has tested his prowess at the physical challenges, just to see how they work. But CBS, the show's broadcaster, has asked him not to. "They don't want me to break my hand or something," he explains.

What about those challenges that don't pose a danger of breaking your hands, such as eating strange foods?

"You know, in the beginning, [during the] first five seasons, I did. But now - on the 17th - no way. I'll just take the locals' word for it; they say it's a delicacy - ok. I'm not in this for the million dollars."

In the later seasons of the program the producers added divisions among the tribes, in an effort to make the game more interesting - boys against girls, elders against young people, favorites against fans and even a controversial division - by race. This season's innovation lies not in division but rather in the opportunities given to the players.

This season of "Survivor" features an Exile, where one can receive clues to the location of the hidden immunity idol and also receive two types of pampering and a comfort item. To Probst's great surprise, quite a few contestants preferred a comfort item to searching for the idol.

What did you think of the Israeli version of "Survivor"?

"I thought it was very similar and I was flattered. It looked just like our show and just like the first version of the show in Sweden. It had the same dynamics of trust - where do I fit in, am I popular. No one wants to be the first person fired from his job, picked last for a team ... It ascribes to the notion of where do I fit in and how much am I actually liked."