Can Jeff Probst survive in the treacherous world of daytime talk shows?
The long-time host of Survivor launches his new series Monday. He faces stiff competition from Ricki Lake and Katie Couric, whose new shows begin the same day, with Anderson Cooper, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray, Ellen DeGeneres and other daytime yakkers also back for new seasons.
By next spring if not sooner, some will have their Tiki torches snuffed out and be asked to leave the island of daytime television. If that happens to Probst, it won’t be because he didn’t give it his best shot, the 50-year-old insists.
“What is comes down to is this,” he told critics last month in Los Angeles. “Somebody’s at home and they have their TV on and they stop at our show or they don’t, right? That’s the amount of pressure you should feel, which is do your best.”
Probst may seem like an odd choice to enter the daytime arena, until you consider the job he does hosting those Survivor finale after-shows. The live shows call on the Kansas native to handle a number of (sometimes testy) contestants, interact with the studio audience as well engage viewers at home and stick to a tight schedule.
Over the years, he’s also guest-hosted both Live! With Regis and Kelly and Larry King Live.
His new series will deal with the usual daytime mix of relationship issues and newsmakers. Probst had his studio built to make it easier to interact with the audience. He’ll also feature his wife, Lisa Ann Russell, who works on the series as a talent co-ordinator and will from time to time be called on camera.
“If the set is like our living room, the first person you should meet is my wife Lisa,” Probst explains.
They met at a Christmas party hosted by Probst’s Survivor boss, Mark Burnett. “He’s changed my life twice,” says Probst, who married Russell last November.
The couple gathered friends around before they closed a deal to buy a house in Hollywood that previously belonged to singing cowboy Gene Autry. Probst decided to leave the giant “GA” above the front door.
“We call it Great Adventure,” says Probst, who says the Autry connection doesn’t stop there. In searching for a sound stage large enough for the daytime series, the producers settled on Sunset Bronson. It was formerly known as KTLA: a broadcast facility once owned by Autry, who also owned the California Angels baseball team.
“I drive from Gene Autry’s house, where I sit in his office which we didn’t change, take the same 101 path on the freeway and go to the office where he worked,” says Probst.
Sometimes life works out and some times you have to seize it, says Probst, who describes himself as a “glass half full” kind of guy.
He told critics at the press tour session a remarkable story about how he landed his Survivor gig. Struggling to make a name for himself in Hollywood and unhappy with offers to host dating shows, he heard future Survivor producer Burnett on his car radio talking up this crazy idea for a series where a dozen or so castaways eliminate each other for a chance at a million bucks. Probst contacted his agent immediately and lobbied for the chance to host that show, going so far as to send a message in a bottle to CBS boss Leslie Moonves.
According to Probst, the message said, “Survivor breaks summer season viewing records and goes on to become the biggest reality show of all time.” The fake news story ended with, “Critics say it is due to the unknown but extremely likable Jeff Probst.”
At the time, Probst kept finishing second to better known candidates when it came to TV jobs, so he figured he’d defuse that up front in his bottled message.
The stunt worked and Probst found himself in a room with the only other candidate for the job: future Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan.
Probst told critics there was no way he was going to be a runner-up again and that Keoghan made the mistake of going in first. “Never let me in that room after you leave, because I will close the deal,” said Probst.
Later, at the CBS press tour party, Keoghan had a different take on that audition. “I had no choice, I was called in first,” he says, adding that Moonves told him his then more pronounced New Zealand accent was the stumbling block to getting the Survivor gig.
“That’s me embellishing a story 12 years later,” Probst concedes when confronted with Keoghan’s version. The bottom line, he says, is he turned down several other well-paying opportunities the year before Survivor in hopes of landing the show he wanted the most.
“I didn’t have $8,000 to my entire name,” he says. “When I knew Phil was the other guy, I thought, I’m so close to getting this that any edge I get I will take.”
That’s the kind of zeal he’ll bring to The Jeff Probst Show, he says, although if it doesn’t click, he knows he’ll survive.
“I have two kids, a career, incredible friendships, two parents who love me and raised me to be grateful. I say it all the time, I’m blessed, and it’s why I have no fear around the talk show, because the absolute worst thing that could happen is it fails.”