In the year 2000, a show called Survivor premiered on CBS.
Seventeen years later, countless imitators—and countless other shows that are wildly different-sounding in concept but eerily similar in spirit at their core—have tried and quite often failed at recreating the winning Survivor formula.
And the key component of that secret sauce? Jeff Probst, obviously.
Just how unusual it is to strike chemistry gold is evidenced, ironically, by the fact that Probst's stab at his own daytime talk show failed pretty quickly. His widespread appeal wasn't enough to dominate that particularly competitive market—but could you imagine Survivor without him?
At this point, with last night's episode of Survivor: Game Changers still managing to tread new territory for the series after 34 seasons, some of them action-packed and others largely forgettable, Probst has become so much more than a reality-TV show host.
The 55-year-old is the beacon of stability between the warring tribes, the voice of reason, the man who speaks the language of Survivor with reassuring gravitas.
"The original premise, certainly for me, was to give them room to play and try to go to the edge of too much and stop one step short," Probst told EW.com ahead of what overnight became a landscape-altering season—though he theoretically could have said the exact same thing any time in the past 17 years.
You could say he's the Chris Harrison of Survivor, except that Chris Harrison is actually the Jeff Probst of The Bachelor, since ABC's flagship romance competition didn't premiere until two years later—once Survivor had confirmed that viewers were happy to watch people frantically compete at anything, be the prize $1 million or an engagement ring.
With 67 seasons of reality TV between them (and that's including just Bachelor and Bachelorette for Harrison), both Harrison and Probst have found the pitch-perfect balance between engagement and observation, with one tending to come across more distraught men and women more frequently than the other. (We'll leave it up to you to decide which host that is.)
"I swear to you, I never dreamed we would hit 100," Probst told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the show's 500th episode, which was the March 8 season premiere of Survivor: Game Changers.
And that was after the series' historic first season was a monster success. Think of how Harrison felt in 2002!
"You know, at that point [after the critics had their way with The Bachelor] I thought the critics were right," he told Glamour last year. "You definitely don't think it's a 20-season gig. It was so new—we didn't know what a rose ceremony was, arrivals were weird, this whole thing had to take shape. Late into season two was the first time I thought, 'This might be around for a while.'"
Meanwhile, with Bachelor in Paradise keeping Bachelor Nation interested between seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette (which, 17 years after the very first winner of Survivor was a gay man, is finally featuring its first African-American leading lady), the franchise doesn't appear to be going anywhere.
But as is the case with Survivor, what would the show be without its longtime ringmaster, the one who intones, "Ladies, if you didn't get a rose, I'm sorry. Take a moment, say your goodbyes," like no other?
"I actually just signed back on not too long ago for five more years," Harrison revealed (sigh of relief) last year. "They wanted to do six and I said, 'Can we just do five?' That gets me to 20 years on the show and 50 years old, and I'm not saying I would want to leave, but I would want to take a second to reassess. My goal is to stay long enough to hand the show over to my daughter. She's 12, so I need a good nine years so she can get through college. Then she can take over."
Hmm, we never thought about a familial line of secession…
But that's why Chris Harrison is the glue holding the increasingly villain-driven (for the 99 percent who aren't in it for the romance) franchise together. He knows just what to say and when. Like Probst, he manages to say the wackiest stuff with a straight face, making his voice the one we want to hear from when everything goes kaboom.
Having already compared this current season to Jaws while talking to THR, in that the contestants were trying to stay out of the shark's way more than take it down, Probst knew he'd be called upon to share his perspective in real time after Jeff Varner unwittingly outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender during tribal council on last night's episode.
"In 34 seasons of Survivor, I have rarely, if ever, personally commented on what is said or done in the game. But this is a unique situation that falls outside the normal boundaries," he told EW.com. "I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line. I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel. You just don't do that to someone.
"Witnessing that moment was so powerful because from my seat at Tribal, I could see it all. Varner was in the middle being attacked by angry tribemates while Zeke sat in the corner, outside of the action in what appeared to be a mild state of shock. It was one of the most surreal moments I've ever encountered on the show. From the outside, it looked and sounded like a regular Tribal Council but in reality, it was one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on Survivor."
And Probst would know because he's seen it all first hand, from physical sparring to medical emergencies to entire cast evacuations. But as he just said, despite being inextricably linked to the overall tone of the show, he has not historically been one to judge. (Though moral authority isn't always required: When Jonny Fairplay made the cut for Survivor: Micronesia, Probst told EW.com, "My first vote was we don't need him. Send him home. Make a point that there is a level of participant that we don't need on this show. CBS said, 'That's interesting, Jeff—you can leave now.' So my vote doesn't count for anything.")
The same goes for Harrison—and lord knows he's been given plenty of opportunities to pass judgment—who had no choice but to evolve into the Charlie Rose of getting to the bottom of controversies surrounding roommate squabbles, indecorous PDA and naps.
It's a dirty job, but these guys are doing it immaculately. Harrison hasn't won his Emmy yet—Probst won the first-ever Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program and overall won four in a row—but at this rate is going to be deserving of a lifetime achievement honor.
Then there's the man who he's been stoically steering the show that's won almost all the Emmys for Outstanding Reality Competition since the award's inception: The Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan.
The 49-year-old New Zealander has been studiously doing his job since the CBS show's premiere in 2001, reliably explaining the rules of the game (with its switchbacks, detours, roadblocks, double battles and more show-specific vernacular), wrangling the pairs as they traipse around the world and riffing when need be.
When season 26 introduced a "blind date" aspect, with five teams composed of people who'd been matched together due to their vague potential as a couple, Keoghan got to really dig into the awkward dynamics that are more par for the course on other shows.
"I love putting myself in a really interesting situation. So, for me this was really interesting," Keoghan told Uproxx about the twist in 2015. "It's like it's a human experiment. This is what happens when you take people who don't know each other and you get them to meet at the starting line of this well-established race around the world and you set it up so there's potential love and you beg the question: Is it possible to fall in love on a 35,000 mile race around the world? Is that actually possible?"
He certainly makes it sound possible.
But the "blind dates" showed that, if you do this job (or almost any job) long enough, you end up playing matchmaker at some point. Keoghan called what his show was doing "the antithesis" of The Bachelor, however, because "this is, 'Wear whatever you want to wear. Shovel this manure. Don't smell too good. You'll be jet-lagged, tired, grumpy.'"
Tell that to The Bachelor's Corinne.
Keoghan was already a de facto relationship (friendly, family and romantic) counselor, considering the emotional beating that even the closest pairings sometimes took over the course of a grueling season. And he could have been speaking for Probst as well when he told THR last year, "There is an inherent freshness that comes from behind a show that isn't studio-based. I think it would be a lot more difficult to keep the format fresh when you're going back to the same place and same stage, whereas we've never had do [do that]. We're never in the same place, and the show is never repeating itself."
So what's the excuse for Big Brother's longevity?
Talk about close confines, that CBS show has been chugging along, buoyed by a relentlessly devoted fan base, since 2000 as well. Beaming into the house every season has been Julie Chen, the queen of cool reserve while simultaneously making sense of that whole alternative universe of evictions and POVs and HOHs.
We know other versions of Big Brother exist around the world, but Chen is the show in the U.S. at the end of the day—and another example of someone who respectfully keeps her distance (literally, via closed-circuit TV) from the shenanigans but has become a most reliable narrator.
And if The Amazing Race gets to win all the Emmys, that's fine with her.
"We've been on 17 years and haven't gotten a nomination. I just don't see it," Chen told THR last September. "I've stopped caring at this point because if I had to choose between accolades or renewals on the air, I pick the renewals. A lot of those shows that were hot and popular when we first went on they're not even on anymore! Remember The Weakest Link, Fear Factor or the primetime version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I'll take getting a pickup over an Emmy any day!"
Well, now we remember them, now that she mentions it ("you are the weakest link, good-bye!"), but we don't remember the hosts of Temptation Island, I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, Joe Millionaire, that show about pirates Mark Burnett produced, or the dozens of other stabs at a Survivor/Amazing Race/Bachelor/Big Brother-type tour de force that have come and gone over the years.
Which is another reason why Jeff Probst, Chris Harrison, et al. have become more than hosts—not just for those they come into contact with on their shows, but everyone who tunes in to watch.
The tribe has not really spoken unless Probst says so. The rose ceremony can't commence without Harrison. The race wouldn't be as amazing without Keoghan. And only Chen can make watching the human guinea pig extravaganza that is Big Brother feel like a most industrious use of our time.
Presumably all of these shows would try to carry on without their commanders in chief—but is it even the same show after that? Even Celebrity Apprentice wasn't the same without its host (turned actual commander in chief). Rita Ora did a fine job for one season but…doesn't it bode so much better for the series' fate now that Tyra Banks is returning as host of America's Next Top Model?
After 22 cycles, no one could look a girl dead-seriously in the eye and inform her she's still in the running to become America's Next Top Model quite like Tyra.