Early in his semi-annual chat with reporters, "Survivor" host Jeff Probst is asked why so many people who otherwise claim to hate reality shows still watch his CBS staple.
"Stop me if I'm being presumptuous, but I kinda feel like 'Survivor' has earned a little respect," Probst says. "We're not the new kid on the block. We're never on the cover of InTouch anymore. But we're still here and, last I checked, we're still winning our time slot and I'm pretty sure it's because we're telling good stories."
Indeed, while ABC's "Ugly Betty" may have monopolized the Thursday 8 p.m. hype last season, the Emmy-winning comedy still routinely averages at least three million fewer viewers than "Survivor." And although its audience may be far smaller than in its prime, "Survivor" shows relatively little fatigue for a series in its 15th installment. The same cannot be said for Probst when it comes to reality TV.
"I feel like the level of BS, the level of loosely scripted moments is reaching a plateau for me," Probst explains. "It's reaching a place where I'm not interested in most of the shows, because I can write them before they're finished. They're so obvious in their direction or where they want the people to go, that it's almost like the camera is waiting around the corner for the person to walk around and find it."
Probst lists "Survivor" and "American Idol" and, oddly, "Cops" as a few of the reality shows that actually contain the sort of unscripted scenes that feel real to viewers.
"Those kind of moments are getting more and more tough to find and I think it actually bodes well for us," he says. "I think we've hung around long enough that our legitimacy is gonna start to work for us again, that we've never once caved into trying to script the show or trying to make people be somebody they're not."
After falling into a bit of a South Pacific rut in recent seasons, the new edition of "Survivor" has migrated to China, where the castaways have been marooned on separate islands in the Jiangxi Province's man-made Zhelin Lake. Granted that Probst begins each season sounding excited about "Survivor," he's beginning this season sounding excited about "Survivor."
"We've been in the South Pacific for quite a while and in all areas China was exciting from a creative point of view," he says. "It gave us different things to draw on in terms of building challenges. It gave us a different visual palette to work with, different colors. This culture that dates back 5000 years gives you so much to draw on that we really had a fresh season. 'Survivor' looks different again and for several seasons in a row, it visually looked somewhat the same -- palm trees and coconuts. We have bamboo and temples this time."
But the new season isn't all bamboo and temples. It's also about picture postcard Chinese locations, making the most of the world's most populous nation. To that end, contestants camp out on the Great Wall, learn kung fun at a Shaolin retreat and each tribe has been given a copy of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."
"This is one of those ideas that could sound a little corny or maybe a little forced, but I really believe it was a solid idea," Probst acknowledges. "I studied it quite a bit, read it quite a bit, just so if a situation ever came up at a challenge or a Tribal, I might be able to say 'In the 'Art of War,' it would tell you you should do this.' There's a lot of basic stuff about how to get along with people and how to win at a game like this. So yeah, it got used."
Asked if he or the producers ever expressed concern about providing a showcase to a nation whose government faces regular charges of human rights abuses, the normally effusive Probst is a bit more quiet and pragmatic.
"No," he says haltingly. "There wasn't. We're there to shoot our show and use their land and their culture in a way that enhances the show, but it wasn't lost on us that this is a country with a philosophy, at least from the government, that's very, very different from ours."
See how that different governmental philosophy impacts isolated American reality contestants when "Survivor: China" premieres on Thursday, Sept. 20.