That’s right: Herc spent Tuesday night with “Survivor’s” Mark Burnett, Jeff Probst, and Richard Hatch!
Why? How? The occasion was the big closing night of the Museum of Television and Radio’s 18th annual William S. Paley Television Festival at the Director’s Guild Theatre in Los Angeles. The fest screened the very first season-one “Survivor” episode from last summer, then launched into some fascinating Q&A.
What follows is my version of the highlights. If you were there, please feel free to elaborate or correct any inaccuracies in talkback. (The museum, by the way, keeps tapes of these seminars - which can eventually be viewed for far less money than the cost of a Paley ticket.) Also forgive please if I’m just repeating material from Burnett’s books; I’ve not read them. Let me also acknowledge that a lot of this material is strictly for hard-core fans - of which I know there are many!
1) Jeff Probst remembered that he was out of work for two years when he heard series creator Mark Burnett describing “Survivor” on the radio. Probst said that when he finally wrangled a meeting with Burnett, the producer spent an hour and 45 minutes explaining to Probst why Probst didn’t want the job.
2) Burnett said the first place he pitched “Survivor” was to The Discovery Channel.
3) Hatch related that he first heard about “Survivor” when his mom called him and said, “CBS is putting together a show just for you.” He said a friend soon thereafter said almost exactly the same thing.
4) Probst said one of the reasons he got his job was his behavior while doing a bizarre live interview with Sandra Bullock. When the Sandy and her interviewer began flirting by unbuttoning each other’s tops, Burnett somehow saw Probst’s potential for grace under pressure.
5) The South Pacific version of the show lasted 39 days, but the Outback version went on for 42, according to Burnett. There’s surely a reason, but it was not discussed that evening.
6) When asked if he’s looking for "types" when casting, Burnett said that he’s interested in assembling 16 A-type outdoor types/adventure seekers who all want to be leaders. He later added that “relatability” was also important. “I want the audience to think, ‘I know someone like that.’”
7) Probst mentioned that tribal councils not only provide an end to each week’s story, they are useful for filling in the blanks of all the storylines. He also mentioned how important he thought the show’s catch-phrases – “Fire represents life,” “The tribe has spoken,” “It’s time for you to go” – are to the success of “Survivor.” Probst said “Temptation Island” is a somewhat weaker show, in part, because it lacked this “tribal and ritualistic” vocabulary.
8) Probst and Burnett remembered Hatch’s eye-rolling when Probst started in for the first time with the “fire represents life” stuff. “I thought I was going to puke,” admitted Hatch. “But it grew on me; you begin to buy into it.”
9) Burnett agreed, noting it was important to do things in an “overly dramatic way” and cited the weekly fire-snuffing as an example of this.
10) Probst did admit, however, that he enjoyed “Temptation Island” – especially “the one with the braids.”
11) Burnett mentioned he’s always harbored an interest in the messianic: “Hitler and how to control other people.”
12) Burnett related that one of the hardest decisions he had to make was whether or not to include Hatch’s cocky first-episode sound bite about having already won the million dollars.
13) Burnett remembered a camera operator radioing in to him on day one. “We have gold dust!” cried the operator. “You have to see this big fat gay guy sitting in a tree! If they lose immunity, he’s the first to go!”
14) Burnett pointed out that Hatch exhibited a trait common to intelligent, successful people: adaptability. He pointed out that Hatch was quick to realize his corporate approach wasn’t accomplishing anything and quickly switched to a strategy of alliance-building.
15) Hatch said the question he gets asked the most is “What is it like with the camera crew around all the time?” “They were like trees,” insisted Hatch. “They never talked to us.”
16) Probst said he remembers where he was sitting when he heard about Michael’s horrific burn accident. “Holy shit!” Probst remembers saying. “That’s going to be good! I hope he’s okay, but that’s going to be good!”
17) Burnett quickly offered his own more politic reaction: “I was extremely concerned. I wish it never happened.”
18) Burnett said those voted off are given all kinds of incentives NOT to return home early, but admitted, “They’re all American citizens; we can’t keep them there if they’re determined to go home.” He revealed that Sonya, BB, Gretchen and Dirk all returned to the States early, but the entire cast of “Survivor II” was persuaded to stick around. “BB was spotted at home,” remembered Burnett, “which made my life much more difficult.”
19) As big a hit as “Survivor I” was against summer reruns, Burnett pointed out that “Survivor II’s” ratings are far greater.
20) Burnett confirmed that the location of “Survivor” would continue to change with each season. “That new location each year is important.”
21) Hatch said his cast never found out how the production crew was living. Did they have any inkling? “None,” said Hatch. “We had no idea where they were or what it was like where they were.”
22) Probst and Burnett confirmed that the production crew lives in 230 identical tents. Probst and Burnett’s tents are next to each other, and no tent is larger than any other. Burnett said there is no lodging hierarchy. “My camera crews would kill me if I suddenly got a bigger tent,” said Burnett. “They wouldn’t bust their asses every day if they thought we went Hollywood.”
23) Someone asked about what Hatch’s nudity was all about. HATCH: It was the South China Sea, it was 110 degrees… PROBST: Bullshit! It was strategy! HATCH (smiling): Maybe it was… No, I never thought, ‘Let’s get naked so I can win.’”
24) “Greg Buis was screwing with us all the time,” remembers Burnett. “The tribal councils were always being interrupted with these crazy pirate laughs.” Burnett relates that Buis became much better behaved after he was reminded of who controlled the edit bays.
25) Burnett revealed that “Surivor” is not subject to the whims of CBS’s standards & practices department, and implied that all censorship is purely self-imposed. “We’re sensible,” said Burnett. “We know there’s parents, children and grandparents watching.”
26) Someone asked about the logistics of getting Sean Kenniff’s dad on that luxury yacht one day after Sean won his challenge. Burnett revealed that the logistics involved doing a lot of math. In order to make it work, the challenge had to be held at 7:30 a.m. California time. Eight loved ones – one for each contestant – had to be waiting at Los Angeles International Airport with tickets in their hands. Seven of the loved ones, of course, had to be sent home, but, as consolation, they were allowed to send CARE packages with Sean’s pop. Mr. Kenniff was loaded onto the Sean’s boat only moments before he surprised Sean on the bridge. Sean’s shipboard massage was extended as various boats rushed desperately to rendezvous in the dark.
27) According to Burnett, the bar where Kelly Wiglesworth shared a Budweiser with Probst did not exist three hours before Kelly got there! The original challenge reward was going to be a single beer, said Burnett, but it was decided at the last minute that this was too lame a reward after all the far more fabulous prizes handed out earlier. The addition of Probst as Kelly’s date, a screening of the first ten minutes of the first episode, and the entire Malaysian bar (frantically created by show production designers) were improvised. Kelly was blindfolded and led to believe the bar was on another island. Only at the wrap party (held at the same locale) did she realize she never left Pulau Tiga.
28) It was hinted that a contestant mutiny was contemplated at some point during “Survivor II.” Burnett indicated that avoiding this eventuality depended on establishing that “our word is law.” “It’s all about keeping them off balance all the time. You can’t blink. If you’re a producer, the minute you back down it’s over.”
29) Why isn’t there more mugging for the cameras? Said Burnett: “The contestants are too focused on dominating the group.”
30) Burnett was struck by the differences between the two Outback tribes. “Kucha was much more industrious,” he noted. “They would be catching 15 or 16 fish a day. Ogakor would spend the day sunbathing, then wonder why they’re hungry.”
31) Burnett revealed that he and BB (another hugely wealthy guy) went on to become good friends, and that BB now greatly regrets encouraging his tribe to expel him from the first series. “He realized it was the wrong thing to do and at the eleventh hour changed his mind. But it was too late.”
32) Burnett was asked why he cut conversations about “Survivor I” from “Survivor II.” “It didn’t interest me, the discussions of Rich’s strategies and so on,” said Burnett. Eventually he told the “Survivor II” cast, “‘Talk as much as you like about Richard and Sue, but know that’s less time you’ll be on TV.’ And it was never mentioned again.”
33) When asked about “Survivor” compensation, Burnett said that the first to be voted off receives $2,500 and the runner-up receives $100,000. “The longer you survive, the more you get,” he said, without getting more specific.
34) Burnett said everyone wants back in. “All of them – well, maybe not Stacy [the season-one lawyer contestant who recently filed suit against Burnett] – say they’d like to do it again.”
35) An audience member brought up a challenge that never aired in which contestants guessed who lost the most weight. Burnett indicated that the occasional non-immunity challenge is edited out when the “reality stuff is too good.”
36) Burnett revealed that there WAS a (ceremonial) tribal council for the episode in which Michael was burned, but it never aired. “Once we put it into the show, we realized it cut into the drama.” That week’s immunity CHALLENGE, however, was deemed pointless, and Burnett did consult with all remaining tribe members to make sure it was acceptable to count Michael’s abrupt departure as a vote-off. (All agreed. None, apparently, wanted to risk being the contestant voted off in Michael’s place).
37) Floods are coming. Burnett mentioned that there were evacuation contingency plans if the fires ever game to close to any of the camps, and the same was true if flooding posed a threat. “But we haven’t gotten to that part yet,” smiled the producer.
38) Burnett said when he hired Probst, he realized he wanted someone “who could be a host, but was a producer in his brain.” Probst revealed that Burnett gives him advice but also an enormous amount of freedom when leading the pre-vote discussions. Probst may also be a de facto “Survivor” producer; he is said to spend an enormous amount of time in the editing bays when he’s not on camera.
39) Burnett said he’s worked on at least one show (“Eco-Challenge” I think) where there WERE fatal accidents. He said the closest anyone came to dying on “Survivor” was when Hatch famously (and ill-advisedly) grabbed a deadly snake by the tail and whipped it away. “Had that snake bit him,” said Burnett, “he wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
40) An audience member made reference to a recent Letterman sketch in which Dave chose a Lamborghini as his “Survivor” “luxury item.” Burnett indicated that “luxury items” had “to be transportable, and not a survival item like a knife.” Burnett also said “almost every” contestant’s first-choice luxury item has been approved.
41) Burnett said sometimes contestants DO pull fast ones with their luxury items. He said he would not have allowed Colby to bring his Texas flag had he known it was large enough to be used as a shelter.
42) Those glasses BB used to start a fire were NOT real prescription eyeglasses, according to Burnett. BB’s spectacles were actually magnifying glasses fashioned to look like eyeglasses. “Nobody thought to check,” admits Burnett.
43) When asked about how much misinformation to the public Burnett is responsible for, the producer replied, “Best thing I can tell you is never believe a word I say. Anything to protect my show.”
44) When asked about Susan’s famous final speech, Burnett revealed that the original plan was to only allow QUESTIONS before the final vote. When Susan asked if she could make a speech instead, Burnett was concerned about the limited verbal skills she had demonstrated to that point. He said okay, but advised her, “Have a point and keep it to a reasonable length.” Burnett then offered the rest of the tribe the option of asking a question or making a statement.
45) Probst, who said he was fairly miserable after 39 days on Pulau Tiga, said he loved Susan’s speech. “I was like, ‘Ah, this is great! Yes! Tell him!!’”
46) Hatch said the speech, which focused on disparaging Kelly, made him nuts. “I was thinking, ‘Shut up!’ I was afraid it was going to make everyone feel sorry for Kelly and I would lose votes!”
47) At the time of the Paley event (Tuesday, March 13), Hatch picked Colby as the winner of “Survivor II.” When a few giggles erupted, Hatch shook his head. “Not because of THAT!”