It was Halloween, in the middle of Panama's Pearl Islands, and CBS had just begun filming the 12th season of its hit reality franchise Survivor. And one person was already feeling the heat. ''I honestly have no idea what they think about me,'' he said, ''if they even know what I do, or if they look at me as disposable. It's business, and nobody tells you anything. And I've definitely learned you really can't trust anybody.''
Pretty standard Survivor speak, but in this case the player was none other than host Jeff Probst, sitting in his crew quarters while periodically blowing into an aboriginal didgeridoo, and the game in question was his negotiations with CBS regarding a new contract (set to expire at the end of season 12). Feeling burned out after snuffing torches for five and a half years and concerned as to what degree the network valued his services, Probst the face and voice of one of television's landmark programs went into season 12 assuming it would be his last. But, as has happened so often on his own show, the host ultimately made an alliance he simply could not refuse, reupping for four more editions over two years.
The turn of events can be traced to a few key developments: CBS' agreeing to more dollars and a shorter commitment, the return of other key behind-the-scenes players (such as executive producer Tom Shelly, challenge producer John Kirhoffer, and production designer Dan Munday, whose contracts were also all up), and most important a reinvigorated Probst. ''I literally travel around the world, meet fascinating people, am part of a great social experiment, and get paid for it,'' he said in his dressing room just minutes before Sunday's Survivor: Guatemala finale. ''It really was, this is your one life, what do you want to do with it?'' For the next two years at least, Probst has his answer.