Mel's Diner: Welcome to the Jungle

How Jeff Probst plans to outwit, outplay and outlast the talk show world
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Jeff Probst may appear to be eating eggs and potatoes, but he's really brainstorming talk show topics, which he seems to be doing 25 hours, 8 days a week right now. Over breakfast at Art's Delicatessen in Studio City, Calif., he notices a woman at a nearby table whom he thinks looks like a celebrity, but he can't pinpoint who she is.

"It's a fun game to play and a good talk show host should be able to build a topic out of this," he says. "The impressions you take from across a restaurant about somebody could be right or wrong. It would be fun to walk up and say, 'Alright, the bet is you're a former supermodel married to somebody important who has a lot of money because that t-shirt does not appear to be cheap and that necklace looks expensive. Your kid is really cute. Who are you?'"

Probst just picked up his fourth consecutive Emmy for outstanding reality or reality-competition host in the role for which viewers know him best, frontman of Survivor. Audiences might also know him from gigs filling in for Regis Philbin or Larry King, or perhaps for the Howard Stern fan's turns hosting Celebrity Superfan Roundtable on Stern's Howard 101 channel on SiriusXM satellite radio.

What people don't yet know Probst for is hosting a daytime talk show. CBS TV Distribution's sales force hopes to change that. CTD just hit the market with a Probst presentation tape for 2012 showcasing the interview skills he honed on Live!, Larry King and especially during Survivor's "Tribal Council." CTD is pitching The Jeff Probst Show as a return to classic talk and Probst as the classic talk show host.

Probst talked with B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego about how lunch this spring with Les Moonves and Nina Tassler led to his talker landing at CBS, why viewers should buy him as a daytime host and how he plans to steal Oprah's tricks for making viewers feel like she's their best girlfriend. An edited transcript follows.

Why do you want to do a daily, daytime talk show?

I've been offered a daytime talk show for the last few years and they were always presented with some sort of gimmick attached, like, 'We're going to have this really cool social media component,' or 'This will be the male version of The View.' I could never really find where I fit. Then last year, during my down time when [the Survivor production was] in Nicaragua, I would sit on my deck and imagine what would I do in daytime that would feel authentic. And I started thinking about Larry King, filling in. Filling in for Regis. Stuff on Survivor. And I looked at the composite of all of that and I thought it really doesn't need a gimmick. It's a classic talk show.

How did the talk show land at CBS?

The truth is Les Moonves called me to go to lunch. And when the king summons you, you go. And we just had lunch, Les and Nina Tassler and myself. And we were just talking about Survivor and they said, 'thanks for another good year and we just wanted to have lunch and what else are you thinking,' and I said, 'you know, I'm going to do a talk show.' I was really clear that that was my next venture and I had already started down the road of thinking about how to do it.

Les said, 'I want you to do it here' and I said, 'For real?' and they said, 'Yeah, in 12.' And I [thought], 'Twelve. What is 12?' And I left lunch and said, 'I'm doing a talk show with Les in 12. What is 12?' My agent said, 'He means 2012, next year. Which means the planning for this show starts today.'

I see [Moonves] once a year, if that. I'm just the host of a reality show. I don't get meetings with Les Moonves. I don't want to insult Mr. Moonves but it's a big deal when he calls you to have lunch. I had absolutely no idea I was going to walk out of there agreeing to do a talk show with them. He happened to ask me on the way out, 'What do you want to do next?' We started working on it in two weeks.

And I have to say this absolutely has been the most supportive environment I've ever worked in, from the moment Les said, 'I'd like you to do it here,' to [CBS Television Distribution President John] Nogawaski and [CTD's president of programming and development] Aaron Meyerson and all these guys I've been working with being about, 'how do we make this the best show?'

Tell me about the pilot shoot.

The first thing we did was we laid the foundation, which is: I'm not a journalist; I'm not an expert; I'm not a doctor. I'm just a guy. From Kansas. Who has spent the last 12 years dealing with people from all walks of life in extreme conflict and helping them get through that adventure and getting the information you need to tell a story.

We ended up with a collage of completely different ideas, all of which excited me. We went from one extreme to the other. We did a story of a seven-year-old kid who was born without legs who has become this inspirational kid who now talks to Iraqi vets about how to live their life without their legs. He got a standing ovation from our audience. To the extreme of a convicted rapist who was seeking forgiveness from a woman he raped.

Some research says with Oprah departing, what's missing in daytime is a "girlfriend," someone who is relatable. Do you think you can be that person - or any man can be?

I'll answer it this way: I've never been afraid to share. Ever. In a relationship. With female friends, with guy friends. I'll share anything. And I've found that on location on Survivor, the people I hang out with are women. We have 'deep talk' as we call it, all the time, where we talk about our lives, relationships, sex lives, dating. And I think if you are open and honest it can be really interesting to ask a guy, 'Why do you do this? Why are guys this way?' And, 'What does it mean if a guy...'

Every talk show comes down to point of view. If the host doesn't have a point of view you don't have a show. And if you're producing topics that anybody can host, you're doing something wrong. So I'm very specific. I'm exactly who I am. I feel confident talking to women.

So, what's your point of view and what topics would you host that nobody else would?

My point of view is that life is short. We're all capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. I see that on Survivor every single day. People say things to me along the lines of, 'Wow, I didn't know I had that in me. I'm so glad I did this. I'll never be the same. I can't wait to get home to my kids and tell them they can do anything because I just survived in the wilderness on my own.'

And I do look at life in an optimistic, glass-half-full way-with the awareness that it will end at some point. So what do you want to do with your life? It doesn't mean I'm going to be jumping up and down on a couch. It might mean I make somebody accountable like we do at Tribal Council for their own good-'Get off your ass, the clock is ticking.' It also might mean going to a prison and saying, ‘What makes you think anybody's ever going to forgive you for what you did? What planet are you on?'

Why should anyone buy the idea of the host of Survivor as a great daytime talk show host?

It's often an intangible quality that draws people to one person or another. And I don't really know how to define it or if it's worth trying to figure it out. I've been on TV for a long time, and if you're curious about what the dude from Survivor is doing in daytime you'll check it out. And if you're not, you won't.

What will the show's format be? Single and multi-topic? Real people? Celebrities?

You've got to have celebrities for sure. People love celebrities. I love celebrities. And yeah, I think there will be times when we'll be multi-topic and there will be times when we devote an hour to something. I have some ideas about things for long-term stories, like I want to send you on a 30-day experiment and we'll check in with you and chart your growth and chart your progress. I have all kinds of ideas. That's the beauty of the format. You can have an idea when you go to bed and get up the next morning, start working on it and have it on the air in a week.

Do you watch daytime? What are you a fan of-and not?

I was a fan of Phil Donahue. What I liked about Donahue was the direct nature of how he approached his subjects and topics. He just asked the questions.

And I was a fan of Oprah for a long time. Now that I'm venturing into it, I'm starting to appreciate that she created something magical and everyone talks about trying to replicate it. You can't replicate what Oprah did. That was just a period of time. But there is an opportunity for somebody to make a new relationship with the audience. And the world is changing. We're the infants in a technological revolution and it's changing our lives. How we connect to each other as humans is changing as well.

One of the things Oprah did so well was open up and share things about herself. What aspects of you, Jeff Probst, might we see in a daytime show that we haven't seen on any other show you've done? Is anything off-limits? 

Nothing is off-limits. Yes, there are parts of me you will see in daytime that you haven't seen but the only reason you haven't seen them is that we aren't friends. We don't hang out together.

When I was on Regis one of the most freeing elements of the show is that it's live. You have the first 17-20 minutes of host chat to talk about whatever you want. And some of the most fun I've had on TV is working with Kelly Ripa. I can say anything. I can talk about a bad hair day, I can talk about a bad date, I can show a picture from high school, which I did and to this day is the most embarrassing photo of me ever taken. But I wasn't afraid to share it. I thought it was funny. And the best part of it is I was able to tell Kelly, not only is this picture humiliating, when I walked out of the house that day I was certain I had it going on.

That's what's appealing to me about daytime-sharing. You're going to have to share too, though. I'm a pretty good interviewer. So you're not going to get by with saying, 'I don't know.'

And I totally believe in the idea that through the specific you can find the universal, meaning you tell one person's specific story and the universal audience almost always relates. It's why we get so frustrated with politicians. Just be honest. Did you smoke pot or not? It's not that big a deal-says the guy who lives in California.

You clearly have a great time with Kelly Ripa. Why not hold on for that show, whether you think Regis should really be stepping down or not? An established show is certainly more of a sure bet than starting your own from scratch.

Well, I'd already decided to do my talk show when Regis announced his retirement. I loved working with Kelly but I had made the decision when Regis retired. But there were definitely years when I wondered if they'd think of me for that show.

Kelly is rare, because she can go anywhere. You can tell any story and Kelly will have a comment and that's really rare in a co-host.

I still look at the landscape and think everybody should change their minds. I think Regis should stay.

And I've got to say I'm excited now that I've embraced the idea of my own show about how much bigger the box will be for me to do stories that I could never do on Regis and Kelly. That's a very specific show: Host chat about your life and have some celebrities on. And I certainly find that appealing but with this genre I can do that one day, talk about relationships the next...it's much more expansive and you can change.

What are you doing to prepare?

What I plan on doing is spending a few months on the road just going through town with my little Flip cam and just talking to random people to get a pulse to make sure my take on what is happening is happening.

One of the things I started doing with Survivor is tweeting a picture of my living room and saying, tweet me a picture of your living room. And people started tweeting pictures of their actual living room. It was the greatest focus group you could ever want because I was able to see, OK, the people who watch Survivor love Doritos and Diet Coke and they tend to have a dog, a few stuffed animals and some kids. 

So now, when we're developing a challenge, I can say, 'Remember a family that's going to watch this likes to eat Doritos and drink Diet Coke while dealing with their kids, so it can't be too much minutiae. We need big, bold colors, very easy to follow challenges.'

I think I can get the same insight by saying, 'What do you like that's on daytime and what don't ya?' I want to go out and talk to people and trust my own sense of judgment. 

What were the biggest things you learned from shooting the pilot?

It was reconfirmed that you have to follow your gut. There are so many people who will encourage you to do something that may be inauthentic and that word gets used a lot. But the power of that word is still there, which is if you don't own it no one buys it, nobody believes it.

That was the biggest thing for me: When I got on the stage I followed my gut. If you thought the story was going to go left and I felt it going right, I went right. And that's the same thing I've always done on Survivor.

The other thing is that it always will come down to story. What is the story you're going to tell me and what am I going to take away from it? So you really need storytellers on your team.

What will the producing structure be? How do you aim to work with your fellow exec producers?

One of the things I learned from watching Oprah Behind the Scenes that I thought was brilliant was when they first pitched Oprah a story, someone was taking notes about her reaction. And those reactions often ended up in her introduction of a story. Her words. And that's something that we ended up doing in this show. As we talked about stories we had somebody taking notes on things I was saying and they became the fabric of the story and it had a real voice from the get-go. And Amy Coleman [one of the producers of the Probst pilot], who was one of Oprah's senior producers, said, 'One of the best ideas was we realized Oprah's giving us everything she thinks about this right now, so we should write it down. That's our open.'

That show is one of the best gifts, the behind the scenes. I will watch them all before my show starts.

Many an accomplished pro has gone into a syndicated strip and been obliterated by the grind, no matter how much warning or how much they thought they knew about how hard it is. How are you bracing yourself? Whose advice or counsel are you seeking?

I've heard from everyone that the grind will destroy you. In fact, every time I'm on Rachael Ray, during the break I will ask her, 'How are you?' And the answer's always the same; it's, 'I'm exhausted.'

My hope is that we can find a way to build a schedule by which we can do a show we are all proud of, but still have lives we can all enjoy. I'm pretty certain that if I can't accomplish that then we'll have to continue to try to. I come from a place in life of balance. I have a full day today but I'm leaving here to go play tennis with my buddy, because I've been out of town for three months. I miss my friends. And so it's important to me so I'm not giving that up. But God, so many people, because we have Blackberrys and email and things, we can schedule ourselves out of a life. I work hard on that to say, 'Yes, I can take another phone call or meeting but right now I'm going to go read the paper.' And so I feel that same way about the talk show. And I get it will be a grind, but it's one of our goals. Everyone who worked on the pilot heard me say it over and over and over, in success we have to find a way to do this show and still enjoy our lives. Otherwise, why bother? I'm not practicing what I preach then.

I had a conversation with a guy one time, he's in his late '80s, and was asking him now that he's older, what would he do differently? And he said, 'I wished I would have kissed my wife three years before I did because I wasted three years getting the courage to ask her out. And I can't get those three years back.' That's never left me. And I discovered something a while back, which was my 97-year-old self. I was talking to a buddy about something going on in his life. I was trying to get through to him and I said, I've got something for you. Imagine you are 97 and you are your son. And he said, 'Oh my God, I totally get it.' And I realized we all have the 97-year-old in us. Anytime we want to access the real truth we go to it. I go to mine all the time. My friends think I'm nuts, but that 97-year-old dude inside me, he's never wrong.

I have a great career, I have awesome friends, but I have a woman in my life and we're raising two kids together and that is my priority, so I struggle every day to find balance. How much time do I devote to work? How much time do I devote to my tennis game? How much time am I with my family? [Enough] so that I'm living a full life. And I think most people deal with that every day. We're all trying to get somewhere.

You have such a famous catchphrase-do you see yourself having a defining, "The tribe has spoken" catchphrase for your talk show?

I think they do kind of develop naturally.

We didn't know 'The tribe has spoken' until the night before the first tribal council. [Fellow Survivor exec producer] Mark [Burnett] and I were trying to figure what to say. His actual suggestion was, [in a mock, Australian Burnett accent] "You should say something like, 'obviously your tribe don't want you around no more.'"

So, that one might not have stuck. And I said, 'Okay, that doesn't totally roll off the tongue.' So he said, [again in Probst's imitation of Burnett] 'but I tell you the truth, Jeff, the tribe has spoken and that's just the way it is.'

And all I said was, 'Ah, the tribe has spoken.' You just did it.

So he said it and you plucked it from that?

Yeah, that's what Mark's good at. He's no accident. He's crazy. Working with him is last minute, but he is a phenomenal storyteller. I think of myself as a good storyteller. But Mark gets heroes, villains, he gets arcs. That was one of the very first things that impressed me.

The other thing about Mark that has informed how I work is Mark doesn't see limitations. He doesn't see them physically and he doesn't see them with time. He's not afraid to say, I'd like the camera to drop down from the ceiling and the ceiling's a four-foot concrete block. He'll say, I don't know, I just want the shot. Envision what you want, then figure out how to get it.

He'd do the same thing with time. We'd be ready to start the shot. The Survivors would be walking up and he'd be [whispering in a Burnett imitation] 'What if we did something like this.' and you think, Why isn't there panic? And that's how we shoot Survivor. There's no panic.

How much impact has Survivor had on your ability to do this talk show?

I've always been curious. I was always asking questions. But Survivor has really been like a classroom. You go from mediating discussions that one week are about race, and the next they're about who ate the rice. It really forces you to think with several different points of view at once and edit in your head. You might need to ask red herring questions to keep them off balance. So, every Tribal Council you have different agendas. One is, 'I have to set up this story for this week,' the other is, 'I am setting this up for around the corner, two Tribals from now.' And it's under this umbrella of, you're all playing for a million dollars, so be careful what you say.

It's also taught me people want to talk, because there are people who shouldn't say anything. If you find what their trigger is, they'll tell you about it. It's amazing what you find out when you ask the question.

E-mail comments to mgrego@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @MelissaGrego

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