Jeff Probst says 90-minute ‘Survivor’ episodes are the ‘sweet spot’

Fans who have been clamoring for more Survivor finally got their wish when the gold standard of reality television became 50 percent bigger last fall with the introduction of Survivor 45. While the move to 90-minute episodes that season was put into place due to the writers’ and actors’ strikes that shut down Hollywood — leaving the CBS schedule barren of scripted programming — the end result was a creative triumph, with what ended up being the best-produced season of the new era.

The move was such a success that CBS is now not only airing Survivor 46 (which premieres Feb. 28) at 90-minutes as well, but the network is even kicking off the season with two, two-hour episodes. There is a difference, however. While Jeff Probst — who acts as both host and showrunner — knew in advance of filming season 45 that it would be airing at 90 minutes, so his crew could structure their creative elements accordingly, they had no such assurances for Survivor 46.  So how did that impact how team Survivor put the episodes together for the upcoming campaign?

Jeff Probst on ‘Survivor 46’.

Robert Voets/CBS

“When we were shooting 46, I did have an instinct that we might do 90 minutes even though CBS said, ‘We don’t need ’em, we’re fine,’” Probst tells EW. “We couldn’t produce for 90 minutes again [not knowing for sure] because the workload was enormous. You’re doing 50 percent more show and that means 50 percent more effort from everybody, 50 percent more content, more twists, more events, more set pieces. We didn’t have the scheduling or the people power to do that.”

What they did have, however, were the contestants — and that proved to be a resource producers could pretty much tap at will. “We do have great players and we do have great storytellers,” says Probst. “So we just took little moments that we might’ve in previous seasons said, ‘We don’t really need to do an interview on that. It’s probably not going to make the show.’ And this year we did an interview on that, and it’s really interesting. Suddenly, a whole story opens up. We’re learning that there’s a lot of gold in those crevices and in those little scenes.”

The bottom line, says the host, is that even though season 45 was planned to be 90 minutes and season 46 was not, the viewer should not even notice: “I don’t think you’re going to feel anything different,” says Probst. “We’ve edited up through episode 4, and everything is great. There’s great story, great gameplay, and so it’s really an opportunity for the editors. All the storytellers that are jammed into that post-production process, they’re amazing. The only big problem is CBS now thinks, ‘Oh, you could do 90 minutes whenever we want.’”

The cast of ‘Survivor 46’.

Robert Voets/CBS

Probst had long hoped for longer episodes before the move to 90 minutes so that his show did not have to lose those nuggets of gold that would otherwise end up on the proverbial editing room floor each week. It’s why the series had previously gotten rid of the “previously on…” and opening credits segments, to allow as much time as possible for fresh content. So once he finally got his wish, it would have been particularly cruel to make him go back to the shorter length.

“After season 45, I was talking with CBS saying, ‘It’s going to be hard to go back to 60 minutes. We can do it, and we will anytime you need us to, but we got to feel what it was like to have one more cocktail at the party.’”

And, for the host and showrunner, the freedom that came with 90 minutes was simply intoxicating. “That’s what it felt like, because instead of an idol hunt lasting for 90 seconds, you could let it play for four minutes. And in that extra time, you got to see inside the person, the panic, how they dealt with it, the dirt on their fingernails, and digging one more time, and here comes somebody — all of those are things that in a 60-minute episode we’d have to say, ‘We don’t have time for it. It doesn’t really matter.’ But then when you see it, you’re like, ‘Well, it does matter!’ I think 90 minutes is a great sweet spot for an episode of Survivor.”

And if Survivor 46 plays as well with audiences as the host thinks it will, that could be the permanent spot moving forward.

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