As Jeff Probst planned his new talk show, he test-drove variations of the typical daytime program — an hour on the couch talking about social issues.
"They were so boring I couldn't even sit through the focus groups," he recalled. "It felt old. It just felt like the format was tired."
So the "Survivor" man threw it out, started over and is premiering a daytime show Monday filled with ideas united only by his enthusiasm. There's a party room. An ambush adventure. Guys on the couch. An end-of-show jury. His wife on the air.
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Maybe he'll succeed and maybe he won't. But he's determined to have fun trying.
Probst is part of a crowded Class of 2012 in the syndicated talk world. Even though he's spent the past decade in prime time as host of television's most consistently successful reality show, he's less known than his rivals — Katie Couric, Steve Harvey and Ricki Lake. Two positives for Probst are his tie to daytime TV's most successful production company, CBS Television Distribution, and a time slot paired with Harvey and Ellen DeGeneres on many NBC stations.
"What he faces is introducing himself," said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for Katz Media. "They know that, with the promotions they are doing. Some of the audience knows him from 'Survivor,' some know him as a Regis (Philbin) substitute. For some, he's a new face. That's the challenge."
Already energetic, the 50-year-old Probst is buoyed by life as a newlywed and stepdad to his wife Lisa's two children. Getting married took him from his comfort zone to a better place and also provided "The Jeff Probst Show" with a theme, which is to encourage people to take chances and try new things in life.
His first week's guests include a couple in their 90s who met and got married within two weeks, three women in their 80s who dispense sex advice, stars of the documentary "The Queen of Versailles" who talk about their effort to build a big new house, and an 8-year-old girl who founded an organization to make the world a better place.
During the "Guys on the Couch" segment, Probst picks two men from the audience to come onstage and answer questions from women, primarily dispensing the male point of view on sex and relationships.
The daily "Ambush Adventure" segment is an idea most inspired by "Survivor." He chooses someone in the audience to do something to shake up their lives. They have to agree before knowing what that is. In one episode, an audience member reveals his dream to try standup comedy. Probst hands him a microphone and says he has 30 seconds to make the audience laugh. If he succeeds, he'll get a temporary job as a warmup comic for the talk show. The guy bombs.
The party room is unique, inspired by the welcoming atmosphere Probst found backstage at Jimmy Kimmel's show. The room next to Probst's stage is built like a living room, with massage chairs, a makeover station, photo booth, snacks and computers to check social media.
"It's in my nature that I'm a people pleaser," Probst said. "I'm asking you to be part of this, so I'm worried about you having a good time. I want you to feel good. I want you to tell your friends that they treated us really well and the show is really fun. And that you got to be on TV."
It buys good will and, he hopes, a good atmosphere.
His wife works as a talent coordinator for the show and will also appear on the air. Just about anyone who works backstage, is in the audience or visiting the party room has a chance to get on. Before the show finishes each day, Probst will try a "breaking the wall" experience of going into the control room to discuss with producers what worked that day and what didn't.
Probst is grateful to people who have helped him in the business, like Philbin for giving him daytime experience (he was approached about replacing Philbin, but was already in negotiations for his own show). He takes tips about interviewing people from Howard Stern. CBS' Leslie Moonves encouraged him to do a talk show that reflects his personality. And, of course, there's Mark Burnett, the producer who hired him for "Survivor" and had another unexpected impact on his life.
"The best thing that Mark did for me, after hiring me and later on introducing me to my wife at his Christmas party, is give me the freedom to be myself and find my way and never second-guess me," he said. "Even though there were many Tribal Councils where I'm sure he was thinking, 'why did you ask that question?' or 'why didn't you ask that?' he never told me that. He let me believe that I was OK."
His relative lack of visibility to the daytime audience gives him "a mountain to climb," Probst said, but he has his hiking boots on. He'll continue on "Survivor" whatever happens with the talk show.
"It's odd that I don't feel any pressure to succeed or not to succeed," he said. "It's not that I have 'Survivor' (as a backup), it's that all you can do is your best, what you're capable of. This is my best, and I'm going to get better every day."