Jeff Probst on Coming Up With Survivor Themes From ‘On Fire’ Podcast (Episode 7)

How does the show come up with season themes?

Photo: CBS


On the latest episode of the On Fire podcast, Jeff Probst, Brittany Crapper, and Jeff Wolfe discussed the conception of Survivor’s biggest themes, such as Ghost Island and Redemption Island, and twists like Fans vs. Favorites and Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty. They also touched on how Winners at War was designed to mark “the end of an era” and how Survivor 41 would have been a “disaster” if not for the intervention from Survivor alum and The White Lotus creator Mike White. 


  • Probst says he considers the latest episode “amazing television,” all due to casting. 
  • Both Probst and Crapper agree that the latest twist of randomly dividing the players into smaller groups to win or lose together impacts the game and up the game’s stakes in a favourable way. 
  • Probst says that the challenges in Survivor are designed for anyone to win at any given moment, and this is highlighted as Frannie won the latest one. Wolfe interjects and says that maybe Frannie should’ve stepped down to save Matt. Crapper disagrees and says Frannie needs to think about herself and her game instead of Matt’s.
  • Wolfe asks about Matt leaving his bag behind at camp; therefore, he couldn’t access his stuff nor use his Shot in the Dark because of this. Crapper says that players shouldn’t get used to anything in Survivor as things are constantly changing, and Probst adds that this could be a reminder for future players.
  • Regarding the latest twist where players were told to run looking for keys to open a cage containing another public advantage, Probst says that though they plan, these situations are “live” and need to act on the get-go. It goes back to both players and producers having to expect the unexpected.
  • Probst says Matt is one of his favourite players because of his vulnerability and is always open with his emotions, particularly at the latest tribal council. He also adds it’s no wonder Frannie has a crush on him. 


  • According to Probst, a “big theme” for Survivor is season-long; it could include a significant twist, might be cast-related, have a unique visual component, and push the boundaries of the format in a new direction. 
  • Some themes on the smaller scale are Blood vs. Water, former cast director Lynne Spillman’s idea, Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty to see if a particular trait prevailed over the others, and Fans vs. Favorites, where both times, a returnee player won. 
  • Redemption Island: it originated as a second chance for players to return to the game, even against all odds potentially. Crapper highlights that fans usually love or hate this twist; there’s no in-between. Probst says this is entirely acceptable as fans also have their own POV, and purists would be against this idea. Probst reveals he wrote a “Survivor Bible” in 2010, given to every department that shares the Survivor philosophy so that everyone knows every detail about the show. It included the redemption island twist, that Boston Rob and Russell Hantz would eventually return to the show, how they would compete against each other, and all the mechanics involved throughout the season. 
  • Probst says he’s afraid when a twist or idea won’t work, but according to him, the only way to keep the show going is to bring freshness each time. It’s a risk production will take for Survivor to keep growing and evolving. 
  • Ghost Island: Probst had this name as an idea for ages. It eventually emerged as an island haunted by all the wrong decisions of past players and where every idol or advantage used was legitimately used by another player in the past, which was misused. Probst says they needed to talk to collectors to get them back. The inspiration for this season was a haunted house.
  • David vs. Goliath: Probst admits knowing that the title is a cliché but that the premise was to framework the advantages themselves instead of who has them. Knowing that the game is unpredictable until someone sees a situation, no one can guess who will have the ultimate advantage, and thus, the theme was born. It was immediately proven by the challenge where without knowing the situation, both tribes opted for what they thought was their best odds, culminating with the underdogs taking the win. 
  • Edge of Extinction: Probst says Edge of Extinction was a spiritual idea centered on pushing the players to a spiritual death and seeing their rebirth as they’re pushed to their limits. Probst mentions CBS was sceptical at first, but everyone else was excited at the creation prospects of this concept. Reem Daly was the perfect example of this concept. 
  • Winners at War: Probst says the “all-winners season” wasn’t his idea, and he dismissed it at first. When he started calling, and people positively responded, production knew they needed an epic theme that supported the season. To outwit the winners themselves, the production framework of the season makes it a battle to the end, and that end would signify a culmination of that era of Survivor. The new era of the game would be “economy based,” where players would use the fire tokens to buy idols, advantages, etc. 
  • Probst was so excited about “money entering the game” he wrote that end-on the era as if it was a novel at the beginning of the Survivor Bible. He forewarns before reading it that it is incredibly corny. 
  • Probst explains how Survivor would work now based on an economic level, mainly how players would trade and buy at a place called “Trading Post.” Probst even envisioned Rick Devens as the over voice at the post. 
  • When Probst called Mike White asking for his opinion about this new concept, thankfully, White dissuaded Probst by simply asking if this concept sounded fun to him. Probst immediately knew this was the worst idea he ever had and immediately erased everything about it without leaving any trace of it behind. 
  • Following this revelation and the general political unrest at the time of covid, production came up with the concept of fun, monsters, and danger, eventually leading to what we know now as the new era of Survivor. 
  • Probst also says that whether the twists work or not, what has allowed the show to continue is, ultimately, the fans’ loyalty. 


  • How do players that use glasses manage to do on the show, especially if they need to use contact lenses or are searching for something underwater? Probst explains that players are allowed to wear glasses on the show and are given saline solutions to help them keep their contacts clean. 
  • While players are voting, are people allowed to communicate? Probst says that the order in which players vote is unimportant, and there’s no strategy involved. He also says that though players can’t talk, that doesn’t mean they don’t manage to find creative ways to communicate. 
  • What happens to the vote parchments after Jeff reads the votes to the contestants? Probst says they’re all kept by the art department, sealed and signed with the episode’s title and date, and kept just in case they’re needed. 
  • Why Jeff sucks? Probst is told that he used to be harsher to the contestants and that it isn’t time for “family therapy.” Probst agrees that he was more brutal in the earlier seasons, but because of his respect towards the players, he changed his tune to show them this. 

Written by

Mariana Loizaga

Mariana is a lawyer and a writer from Mexico City, Mexico. She has a masters degree in International Relations from the University of Surrey. Her hobbies include reading, blogging, and of course watching Survivor. The first season of Survivor she ever saw was Survivor: Philippines and she became so fascinated with the game and its many layers that she went back through the archives and watched every single previous season.

One response to “Jeff Probst on Coming Up With Survivor Themes From ‘On Fire’ Podcast (Episode 7)”

  1. Survivor is the crest of the wave! The most exciting thing I can do! It’s my destiny to show up and ride!

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