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“Survivor” host Jeff Probst reveals if theme seasons are truly dead

“Survivor” host Jeff Probst reveals if theme seasons are truly dead

The show will not move away from numbered season titles anytime soon.

One of the biggest changes in the new era of Survivor is right there in the title. After Survivor: Winners at War (season 40), the franchise began simply naming its seasons by their numbers. Hence, the 46th season of the show premiering Feb. 28 on CBS is titled Survivor 46.

But with the move to number-titled seasons, something has been lost, and that something is themes. Even when Survivor was still moving around the globe from location to location, the show was spitting out theme seasons. There was Fans vs. Favorites, Heroes vs. Villains, Blood vs. Water — all which separated players into tribes due to certain designations.

The show also often separated players due to characteristics even if it wasn’t in the actual title, like the Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty clash on Survivor: Cagayan, the battle of the sexes seasons (The Amazon, Vanuatu, and One World), and even the ill-conceived race war edition of Cook Islands. There were also themes built around game twists like Exile Island and Redemption Island.

<p>Robert Voets/CBS</p> 'Survivor 46' contestants during a competition on season premiere

Robert Voets/CBS

'Survivor 46' contestants during a competition on season premiere

Once the show settled in Fiji in 2016, the theme seasons kicked into high gear with the uninterrupted run of Millennials vs. Gen X, Game Changers, Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers, Ghost Island, David vs. Goliath, Edge of Extinction, Island of the Idols, and, finally, Winners at War.

However, when the franchise shifted to numbers after taking a year off due to Covid, the themes became a thing of the past. On one hand, it makes sense. Some of the themes (Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers, anyone?) were kind of silly and a bit of stretch. And often the designations (Candide Woodcock a Hero for mutinying from her tribe?) didn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense.

But those themes also could be a ton of fun while inspiring a clear rooting interest for viewers who perhaps enjoyed cheering on the underdogs of the David tribe or the villains of the… well, Villains tribe.

Themed seasons (or any season with a title other than simply a number) are also much easier on the recall. Ask any Survivor superfan who won the All-Stars season that aired 20 years ago and you will quickly get an answer of Amber Brkich. But ask that same fan who won a recent season like Survivor 42 and you are more likely to get something along the lines of “Wait, which one was 42? Was that Gabler? Erika? Maryanne?” That’s because numbers just kind of tend to blend together and don’t have the wild variation that the location and theme-titled seasons used to have.

<p>Robert Voets/CBS</p> 'Survivor 46' contestants during a competition on season premiere

Robert Voets/CBS

'Survivor 46' contestants during a competition on season premiere

With that in mind — and with Australian Survivor running theme season after theme season after theme season (including the current Titans vs. Rebels installment), we asked host and showrunner Jeff Probst if we ever might see theme seasons back on the original U.S. version.

“It would have to be a really specific theme that still worked within our new era and still could have a number attached to it,” says Probst.

For Probst, the themes became more and more of a stretch the longer the show ran, and this is a show that simply has no end in sight. “When you step back and look at Survivor from a global big, big, big picture, it’s: How long will the show run? And where are you going to take it?” says the host. “And so you do have to sort of manage the creativity from a broad sense.”

<p>Robert Voets/CBS</p> 'Survivor 46' premiere challenge

Robert Voets/CBS

'Survivor 46' premiere challenge

And in Probst’s view, the themes before shifting to numbers were becoming thinner and thinner. “The issue I was having— because I came up with most of those themes — is they're hard to come up with. It's hard to come up with a theme that rolls off the tongue, is a legit extension of the social experiment, and is something you can sustain all the way to the final three and the decision of who wins.”

So after the all-champion blowout, the host felt it was time to shake things up by going back to basics. “After 40 seasons — Winners at War, another great name — it felt like this is our chance to redesign how we do the game moving forward and get that onus off our back, because I don't want to disappoint the fans. I think going to numbers allows us now to focus more on the players and put individual twists within the game. And maybe we will find a theme that we can put inside a season that's a mini theme, but it's still part of Survivor 46. And those thoughts go through our head. We just haven't come up with any that felt right yet.”

<p>Robert Voets/CBS</p> Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 46'

Robert Voets/CBS

Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 46'

As a somewhat hot take aside, one of my personal favorite themes from a strictly idea standpoint was Ghost Island (season 36). Sure, the whole concept of how immunity idols and advantages from the past all ended up buried on an island that had somehow magically granted them awesome new powers was as goofy as that time on Survivor: Vanuatu when Probst called a challenge with sunglasses on… in a rainstorm. But it was also a brilliant way to honor and pay tribute to the history of the show — through iconic items like the immunity necklace Erik Reichenbach gave away or the “f---ing stick” Jason Siska gave Eliza Orlins — without actually bringing back returning players.

But Probst uses Ghost Island as an example of why they no longer do big theme seasons. “Ghost Island is probably the corniest idea I ever had,” says the host. “It was just as thought out as Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty or Winners at War or David vs. Goliath or Millennials vs Gen X. It just happened to be a little sillier. Let's pretend that's a haunted island. Every convention of a haunted house should go into this idea, and we went and found all the old idols from collectors and the Ozzy stick and all that stuff.”

CBS 'Survivor: Ghost Island' logo
CBS 'Survivor: Ghost Island' logo

Again, so far, so great as far as I’m concerned! But then Probst pitched it to the network. “In terms of the time and energy that went into it, I remember pitching that thinking: This is the greatest idea I've had in a while because it works! And I remember there was an executive at CBS — they were only there for one year — and they were so nonplussed. They were like, ‘Well, I like the name.’ I was like, ‘OH MY GOD! And I took my toys and I walked out of the room.”

By stripping down the process, Probst says they can pour their efforts into what really matters. “I'm glad we don't have that right now. I'm glad we can just focus on the players and a cool number and a great logo and great seasons. I feel really good about seasons 41 through 45. I'm super proud of them. I think they've been fun to watch, and I think 46 is going to be equally fun to watch.”

Having met the new cast and spent some time on set during filming on Survivor 46, I have a feeling he may be right. But that does not mean I will ever stop pushing for Survivor: Ghost Island 2 — No Hourglasses Allowed.  

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