TV mogul Mark Burnett is the mind behind some of the biggest television hits of the last two decades — “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Voice” — but perhaps his biggest hit of all is “Survivor.” It is certainly his longest-running show.
And through “Survivor,” Burnett and his wife Roma Downey gained one of their best friends in host Jeff Probst, the TV mogul revealed during an interview with the Television Academy. He also talked about trying to talk Probst out of hosting “Survivor” and who almost got the job instead.
Here’s what Burnett had to say.
Burnett Spent an Hour Trying to Talk Probst Out of Hosting
During the casting process for who was going to host “Survivor,” Probst made it to the finals (obviously), and then he had a sit-down with Burnett in which Burnett tried to talk him out of it.
“I spent 45 minutes to an hour telling him why he couldn’t do this and shouldn’t do this job,” said Burnett. “Because there was no babysitting for some star. They might live in a tent, they might not get much water or food, get bitten by bugs, chased by snakes — it’s gonna be a crappy job.”
He said he told Probst that if he wanted to do it — like “really live in this” environment, not just be some TV host, but “living in the experience,” then maybe it was for him.
“He didn’t say a word, he listened for 45 minutes and he started laughing,” recalled Burnett. “He said I’ve been here for 45 minutes and I haven’t said a word yet. I really wanna do this. I said OK, I’m gonna put you on the shortlist and I went to Leslie Moonves.”
Moonves was the head of CBS at the time and Burnett thought it would be up to him who to choose.
Burnett Had to Choose and It was Between Probst and Another Well-Known TV Host
Burnett recalled how he expected Moonves to make the decision for him, but Moonves told him it was his show, so who was it gonna be?
“I’d found two people that I believed in and Jeff was one of those two and the other was Phil Keoghan, who went on to become the host of ‘Amazing Race,” said Burnett. “I presented both to Leslie … he looked at DVDs of both of them, he met both of them and he and I were alone and he said, ‘Who ya hiring?’ and I swallowed and thought, “Isn’t he gonna make this choice? He’s having me make this choice?! I’m hiring talent for a network show!'”
Burnett told Moonves that his instinct said to go with Probst and that was that. But he added, “CBS benefitted massively from that casting” because they got both Probst and then Keoghan later.
Indeed. Between “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race,” CBS has earned 17 Primetime Emmy Awards — though interestingly, “Survivor” has never won for Outstanding Reality Competition program and Keoghan has never won for Outstanding Host of a Reality Competition Program.
Keoghan has also enjoyed some recent success with the new CBS reality competition program “Tough as Nails.” And Burnett has found a lifelong friend in Probst.
“Jeff Probst has gone on to be one of my best friends, one of Roma’s best friends and he’s become a showrunner on ‘Survivor,’ an executive producer and is not only much loved by 12, 14 million people every week … Jeff has taken a great leadership role and I’m very grateful to Jeff,” said Burnett.
Probst Had Been Down to His Last Few Thousand Dollars When ‘Survivor’ Came Along
It worked out well for Probst too. In a separate interview, he told the Television Academy that he was down to about $8000 and had no job prospects when “Survivor” finally came along. He had actually been in the running to host two different game shows but didn’t get either job because he wasn’t a well-known commodity back then.
“I had been up for two big game shows and I didn’t get either one of them. ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ was on the air with Regis, it was a big hit, so every network was trying to find one,” said Probst. “NBC had ‘Winning Lines’ and they went with Dick Clark, and CBS had ’21 Questions’ and they went with Maury Povich. But in both cases, I got a phone call saying we really want you to understand that your skill is there but you don’t have a name and we need a name. But if we ever have a show that doesn’t need a name, we’re interested.”
Then he happened to hear Burnett talking about “Survivor” on the radio — “I gotta get in on this,” recalled Probst. “I called my agent and I said there’s this show ‘Survivor’ and I gotta get in” — and the rest is history.
“Survivor” is back in production now. If the pattern holds, it should be premiering its 41st season the third or fourth week of September 2021.