It took 45 seasons, but Survivor is finally getting supersized. While the show's finales/reunions have always clocked in at three hours, and there have been occasional 90-minute and two-hour episodes, Survivor 45 will be the first season of the CBS reality hit that will have 90-minute episodes all season long (to be followed by 90-minute installments of The Amazing Race).
It's a change host and showrunner Jeff Probst has been lobbying at CBS executives for years, and with both writers' and actors' strikes now shutting down scripted programming and opening up slots on network broadcasting schedules, CBS was finally ready and willing to give it a shot.
But how did producers make the switch from 60 to 90 minutes (or, approximately 43 to 64 minutes of episode time)? Did they know before filming in April that they would have more time and planned accordingly, or did they just add more footage in the edit?
We spoke to Probst to get the full scoop on how they put together the biggest season of Survivor yet, and it includes a tweaking of one classic Survivor element, as well as the return of another.
Robert Voets/CBS Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 45'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you know you were going to be making 90-minute episodes before you began filming back in April?
JEFF PROBST: Yes. I actually had been pitching CBS for probably five years, "Let us try 90 minutes!" And they were always reluctant because that's a long episode and you're never sure when it's too much. But back in October, CBS came to us and said, "Okay, you got your wish. We'll do one season of 90-minute episodes and we'll see how it goes." They didn't want to fully commit to two at that point because they wanted to first see how it went. But that gave us six months to lay out a game design for 90 minutes to ensure that the 90 minutes would be entertaining.
So how did you approach that?
We sat down and broke the show down and looked at adding more acts, adding more time, and then went in and said, "Okay, here's what we can now do to make sure those 90 minutes are really entertaining." And [co-executive producer] Jimmy Quigley and his Team F.L.I.N.T. department came in and said they had an elaborate hidden immunity design idea that we couldn't do with 60-minute episodes because there are so many stages to it that it would take too much time.
But because we had 90-minute episodes, we now have the time. And fans are going to love it. Idols are much more complex in terms of securing them, and you're going to see the ingenuity required. And maybe you have to pair up with somebody to be a lookout. But because we have the time, we can take you into the dirt with them. And it's really fun to watch. I don't think fans are even going to know the episodes are longer it. It's that kind of entertainment.
So when you looked at having around 20 extra minutes of actual episode to play with, how much were you planning that out in the front end, and how much was just having the ability in the edit to add extra stuff on the beach you might normally have to cut? Walk me through that a little bit.
Ninety minutes presented an interesting challenge for us because we still only had 26 days to shoot, but we have essentially 50 percent more show to produce. And so what we were wrestling with on location was the drain. It was taking on everybody. But the natural assumption is, "Well, if you have more time, why can't you just show more of all the stuff we love?" But the truth is, that's a risky bet because not every moment of every day is interesting by design.
There are days on Survivor that we sort of refer to as a "down day," where we want the players to just be at camp and we want to just watch them and see what happens. Some days it's crazy out there and there's all kinds of strategizing going on, or they create a new fun game or they rebuild their shelter. Other days, they sleep all day.
So you can't just rely on there being more stuff. You do have to produce for it with set pieces that are going to create moments. That's not to say that we couldn't do 90-minute episodes without having shot for it, but it would depend on how much happened out there. And I think that's just not something I would want to normally take a risk on. I'd rather know in advance.
Robert Voets/CBS Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 45'
Besides the more complex idols, are there any other new pieces that you are introducing with the extra time?
Well, we brought the auction back. And the reason that falls into this is the 26-day season does have certain limitations. And doing something like the auction is a lot of work for us. It requires many departments to contribute. We felt like this is a good season to do it, but we didn't really have an idea. And this was because we felt like we broke the auction once we put advantages into the mix because players would just hold their money with the idea that there would be an advantage at the end and then it would be a race to buy it.
So the auction became about reinvention, and this was a situation where I actually just sat down one day with a blank piece of paper determined to come up with a new idea. And once I had something, I called my buddy Elan Lee of Exploding Kittens. As always, he added another great layer, and brainstormed with me, and the new auction was born. And since it will only be new the first time you see it, I'd rather not tease it anymore. But it was directly related to having 90 minutes and thinking this would be a really fun thing to bring back, and this is the perfect season to do it.
I always wondered about the auction when we would talk about it, and my simplistic approach was to just announce at the top that there were no advantages and no clues, and it was just food. Now that's going very back to the old school 1.0 auction. It sounds like what you have decided to do is if that was the 1.0 auction, and adding advantages was the 2.0 auction, that now you're debuting the 3.0 auction, essentially.
That's a great way to describe it. I wish I'd have thought of that that way, but that is how I would describe it because I didn't want to go backwards. Going backwards and watching somebody pay $100 for a hot dog is not interesting to me anymore, and it's not going to turn the game. It's just going to give them a free afternoon of food. And that's not what this era of Survivor is about. The new era of Survivor is about earning everything, and that includes the auction.
With more episode time, does that mean we can expect to see more reward challenges?
No, because that's part of the dilemma. You still only have 26 days, and we can still only build so much in that time and then break it down and build something else and then test it and rehearse it. So we, too, had limitations. We looked at the 90 minutes as a really cool challenge because we couldn't simply solve it by building more things that take more time and resources. We had to solve it by being clever ourselves and finding ways to create story moments and turning points within what already exists. And so that's why the hidden Immunity Idol is a good example. We're going to do idols. They are a part of the show, but we've never done them like this because we've never had the time.
So that's really where our creativity came from, is we're going to do a journey. Is there something we can do different with the journey that would allow us to spend a little more time on the journey that we normally would say no to because we knew it would never make it in the show? It was a really fun challenge, and I emphasize the word challenge because it wasn't a walk in the park. It wasn't a slam dunk. It was: What can we do within our 26 days with the team we have assembled that will be interesting for the players and result in turning points for the story? So everything had to check all those boxes.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 45'
Of course, with more time, people are going to wonder if that means the opening title sequence, which you all cut out years ago, is coming back. So what can you say about that?
The main title is back in episode 2.
And will it be staying throughout the season?
Yep. And not only is the main title back, but there's an Easter egg in every main title for the true super fan. The main title in and of itself was enough to bring back. It's very fun. But this is a new era of Survivor, so we thought, "Let's make it fun for the audience as well by giving them a little something special in each main title." And that's all I'll say. You don't need to find the Easter egg to enjoy the episode, but if you find the Easter egg, it might give you a little more insight into the episode.
So what about season 46? Because CBS said they would test this out for 45, but you all filmed Survivor 46 right after that, so how did that impact what you did there?
Well, here's the truth: For 46, I was optimistic that 45 would work and that maybe CBS would say, "Okay, we like it. We wish we had shot 46 for 90 minutes." So all of the producers in every department knew to just be thinking of 90 minutes while we're out there, and if you see an opportunity for a deeper story or you have an idea that we could add into something that's already in our game design, let's talk about it, and if we can pull it off from a production standpoint, let's do it.
But in that case, the challenge became: We can't create things and put them in the show without the possibility that we can then cut them out of the show. So we have to reverse engineer in the other direction. What can we do if we don't have time to show it where we could lose it and it wouldn't impact the central dramatic question of who is going home. We had a lot of fun with that. So that's my way of saying if CBS comes and says, "Okay, maybe we will keep it for 46," we'd be ready to take that on.
But ultimately, it's the CBS schedule that will determine that, right?
Even if it works in 45 — and I have zero doubt it will work because these episodes are fantastic — it's the three-hour block. That's the issue. You have 90 minutes, and then you'd need either a weird half hour to make it an even two hours or Amazing Race or Big Brother or somebody else has to do 90 minutes. I think that's the bigger issue.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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