'Survivor' puts characters to test

— How will "Survivor: All-Stars" differ from bygone "Survivor" series? Just ask Jeff Probst, host of this CBS back-to-nature game show, who got a clue early on.

"We were waiting to start the first challenge," he recalls, "and one of the castaways says, 'Hey, Probst! Production slowing us up?'"

Instantly he knew what he was dealing with. "This group of castaways has been on 'Oprah' and 'Regis.' They're TV-savvy -- or think they are."

Add in the fact that these recycled contestants are familiar with each other -- and that the audience probably knows them better than most presidential candidates -- and this "Survivor" looks to be a whole new game.

The original "Survivor" was a cultural phenomenon, seizing the public's attention during the summer of 2000 and, with its finale that August, grabbing 51 million viewers -- a huge 45 percent share of everyone watching TV. Returning every few months, each subsequent edition has been a big attraction.

A confident bunch

For Probst, whose "Survivor" duties include referee, inquisitor and provocateur, these "All-Stars" contestants presented some new wrinkles, he said.

Originating from the same setting off the Panama coast as "Survivor: Pearl Islands" (whose finale aired Dec. 14), "All-Stars" was introducing no novices who, at least initially, "are easy to manage and to strike fear into," Probst says with a chuckle. "This bunch arrived confident that they had anticipated every twist we were going to come up with."

Even before the 39-day contest got under way in November, the contestants had put Probst on notice: They would be guarding against his interrogations at the "tribal councils," those torch-lit sessions where players often speak more freely than they should -- right before ballots are cast voting one of them off.

"One by one, they e-mailed me or called before we got out there and said, 'I just want to let you know: I'm not gonna give you anything good at tribal council.'

"I went into the game thinking, 'How am I gonna get good stuff out of these guys?' And it turned out I got the best stuff I've ever gotten."

Probst's counterstrategy: Use their confidence against them or, in his words, "Just ride the horse in the direction it's going. If these people believe they're running the show, let 'em keep thinking it."

Bottom line: Probst might be the most skillful "Survivor" player of all.

A master of tension

With a canny understanding of his castaways and dimples you could make camp in, Probst, now 41, debuted with "Survivor" four years ago after serving as host of several shows for the FX network, as well as on the VH1 game show "Rock and Roll Jeopardy." But these are credits that don't suggest his skill as a combination Mr. Roarke and Dr. Phil.

"Probst is aptly named: On 'Survivor,' he's a prober, not simply a presenter," says Neal Gabler, a cultural critic who wrote "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

"There's not only tension between the participants in the game," Gabler says, "but also between them and the game, and Probst is the embodiment of that. It's not enough that the contestants are pitted against one another, and against nature -- they're also up against forces represented by Jeff."

But that shouldn't be a problem for "All-Stars."

"We had 18 proven reality-show participants," Probst says, "and they all delivered. Nobody let us down in terms of drama.

"This was the hardest 'Survivor,'" he adds. "In the past, (creator Mark Burnett) has worried about dehydration, loss of morale. This time, we kicked 'em hard. When they thought it was gonna get better -- it didn't! To their credit, they just fought on."

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