'Survivor' Host & EP Jeff Probst Talks What Inspired Season 38 and the New Twist

Ingela Ratledge
Q&A CBS

Survivor has spent nearly two decades on the air, so pushing people to their physical and mental limits is just another day at the beach on CBS’s venerable reality competition.

When Season 38 kicks off in Fiji, the 18 castaways — 14 newbies and four veterans — will once again confront that well-worn gauntlet, but with the addition of a potentially crippling new element: the unknown.

In a wild twist, the contestants who get eliminated at tribal council will learn mere moments after their flames have been extinguished that they still have a (slim) shot at getting back into the game and winning the $1 million prize.

That is, if they’re willing to decamp, sight unseen, to the Edge of Extinction, a nearby island where they’ll be subjected to a very different kind of endurance test. (Imagine a bizarro-world purgatory devoid of timelines, tribes, structure or insight into one’s own fate.) Host and executive producer Jeff Probst previews the head trip for us.

What was the inspiration for Edge of Extinction?

Jeff Probst: The idea was simple: We wanted to see if we could create a situation in which we might get a spiritual death and rebirth from at least one player. It was really that corny and that earnest. Survivor pushes people so far out of their comfort zone already. We wanted to see how much further they’re capable of going.

How is the twist revealed?

The key element is surprise. There’s that moment at tribal council when someone’s name on the parchment has just been read out and you see that look of “Oh, my God, after all I’ve sacrificed, it’s over.” Then they walk down a long path — they don’t know we’re still shooting — and come to a signpost that offers one question: Have you had enough, or do you want more? And that’s the extent of it!

Is the Final Season of 'Survivor' Near?

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Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst weighed in recently.

How soon do they figure out what Extinction life entails?

They don’t! It would be very different if we said, “This is how tough it will be.” When you have nothing to go on, it’s really daunting. Resources are scarce, information is almost nonexistent, and they realize that the odds of getting back into the real game and winning are very low. It’s a testament to the people on our show that so many of them can find a second, third and fourth gear.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual back on the main island. Do the players there suspect anything is up?

Everybody knows Survivor is always changing, so they’re working through the Rolodex in the back of their minds for what the twist could be. But I can tell you, nobody anticipated this. It also worked to our advantage that we had four returning players, because that created a diversion.

Speaking of: How will the old hats — Joe Anglim, Aubry Bracco, Kelley Wentworth and David Wright — fare against the fresh recruits?

Any advantage their past experience has given them is quickly offset by the fact that everyone else knows what they’re capable of. There is no hiding! Joe and Wentworth are strong at the challenges. Aubry is one of the most gifted social players ever—that gets factored into every conversation people have with her. David can never undo that he once tricked another player with a fake hidden immunity idol, so his only move is to do his style in a new way.

Is it risky to attempt this Extinction theme? Some of your earlier second chances — Season 12’s Exile Island, Season 22’s Redemption Island — have been met with mixed reactions.

People who watch our show are passionate about the format, and they have strong opinions. I understand their objections to change, and they’re totally valid! We just don’t happen to share them. Within the Survivor box, we’re going to continue exploring every crevice. We didn’t do Edge of Extinction to correct what we perceived as something wrong with Exile or Redemption. This is the absolute truth: We are going to continue to push the boundaries until we burn out, but we are not going to fade away!

Survivor, Season Premiere, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 8/7c, CBS