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August 22, 2000

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Jeff Probst Deserves a Better Fate

        I refuse. I absolutely refuse to get into the hoopla over who's going to win the $1 million Wednesday on Survivor. Truth is, I honestly believe the award for the biggest backstab goes to CBS against host Jeff Probst.
       We'd be redundant to cover old ground. You know Wednesday will be the biggest-grossing non-Olympic summer night for a television network in history. CBS will claim Survivor will be watched by more people than any summer show in history, which won't be true unless the show draws more than 37.2 million viewers (The $64,000 Question attracted that many for an August night in its first season 45 years ago).
       As for the personalities: CBS could not have hoped for four more unpleasant souls than the quartet here at the end, though Rudy Boesch is more of a crusty old unpleasant than the just plain irritating Richard Hatch, Kelly Wiglesworth and Susan Hawk. Which is testimony to my original theory you wouldn't have a hit with 16 nice people playing Survivor. I truly believe the large audience will be watching predominantly to see somebody lose, more than pulling for one to win. Candidly, having to place one of these four on the same page with Dave Legler, Curtis Warren, John Carpenter or Joe Trela in winnings may make me send out for a bottle of Maalox.
       I've surveyed at least 45 CBS affiliates (and certainly most of the 200-plus are in the same category) which are planning major late news emphasis Wednesday night on Survivor. Some are doing multipart series on the phenomenon all week. KCBS in Los Angeles is even airing a half-hour pre-game show, Countdown to Survivor.
       However, the guy who I honestly believe is getting short-shrift Wednesday night is Probst. Let's tell the truth, Probst has only been doing a game show gig (and this is the most exotic game format in history) for two years. He still looks periodically stiff on Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy. He is a long way from being the next Bob Barker or Tom Kennedy.
       Having said that, this is the guy who has been in the right place at the right time. He was tapped by CBS and Mark Burnett to helm Survivor because they did not want a traditional emcee. That was the right call. Probst has taken a bum rap in the media for some of the dialogue, particularly in Tribal Council or his instructions for the Immunity Challenges. He's delivering what's being written for him and he's expected to do it in a detached fashion to provide total neutrality. Probst would be totally ineffective if he led this show with a "come on, get out of that minus" enthusiasm of an Art Fleming or the "isn't this exciting?" of Barker. In that respect, Probst has been brilliant. The texture of this show creates anything but a cheerleading effective, except to root for specific players to lose----once the few upbeat people were eliminated. Probst carries the right amount of distance from advocacy here.
       Regardless of why, Jeff Probst has been the host of the number one game (and prime time show of any kind) for ten consecutive weeks. So why is he suddenly not the guy to host the live post-game show from 10 to 11 Wednesday? Why is he not considered credible enough to debrief the contestants? Why can he not ride the horse to its full first sunset?
       Don't give me the claptrap of Probst getting to enjoy being in Australia to preview Survivor II. Bringing Bryant Gumbel in to host this thing is a supreme slap in the face. This would be like ABC suggesting it needed to bring in Charlie Gibson to host the final night of the first 13 Millionaires last summer in order to give Good Morning America a ratings nudge.
       CBS is so desperate to get The Early Show in the game, CBS News has damaged its own credibility----despite ridiculous spin woven by the show's producer Steve Friedman, CBS News president Andy Heyward and CBS chief Les Moonves----by inserting Gumbel here and Julie Chen on Big Brother and I frankly am not sure which is worse.
       Quite true is the fact the legendary Edward R. Murrow hosted a weekly celebrity interview for nearly ten years. Both Walter Cronkite and Douglas Edwards each hosted summer game shows while on the payroll of CBS News. John Charles Daly himself was the chief and lead anchor for ABC News during the first 11 years he did What's My Line? on CBS.
       That, also, was a different day in a fledgling medium before television news was considered a serious, sophisticated reporting source and was often done primarily to supplement the incomes of newscasters who were not the highly-paid megastars they are today. At least Cronkite's show was a news quiz. Murrow, on his Person to Person, maintained a serious informational approach to what was often a fluff show.
       However, the issue here is not strictly the credibility of CBS News. It's the issue of the guy who brought you to the dance. Now Jeff Probst is hardly in the league of Regis Philbin and can certainly not be credited with as much influence with the success of Survivor as Regis has exhibited with WWTBAM. However, he deserved to be the guy enjoying the last goodbyes with this interesting cast of 16 in the final hour Wednesday night. Probst should have been the one probing their emotions, their future celebrity and the impact this series has had or will have on American culture.
       Gumbel, who has often had less warmth than Don Rickles, will be like a guest in the wrong house Wednesday night. The sad part: this will not result in a dramatic ratings increase for his morning show, though the Survivor and Big Brother interviews have brought incremental audience increases. Yet, when those shows are over, the audience won't be flocking to Gumbel.
       When CBS opted to add that live post-game hour, Probst should have been the choice to host it----no ifs, ands or buts. My only theory on this one, other than a cheap ploy to cross-promote its weak morning show: CBS may well figure Gumbel---whose caustic personality is a legend---would be more compatible on live television with these often-annoying castaways. If so, that's a hollow reason.
       Audiences are going to watch Wednesday night because they are compelled by Survivor, not because they want Bryant Gumbel there. This should have been clearly Jeff Probst's night from 8-to-11, not 8-to-10. For that glaring boo-boo, CBS should be profusely ashamed.

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