When Jeff Probst starting live-tweeting Survivor last season, he did it because he wanted to, not because CBS asked him to. But just two episodes later, the network was encouraging fans to follow @JeffProbst before every commercial break. This season, he's both live-tweeting and answering viewer questions in 15-second video clips using Tout, and the fan response has been overwhelmingly positive. We talked to Probst about how he convinced CBS that live-tweeting was worthwhile, and why Ozzy has the fans to thank for his return to Survivor.
TVGuide.com: The first time you live-tweeted an episode, you said something like, "C'mon, guys, let's prove to CBS how cool this is." Were you getting pushback from the network about tweeting?
Initially, CBS just didn't have an opinion one way or another. They never said, "Don't do it," but they were not convinced at all that it was really worth pursuing.
TVGuide.com: So they definitely weren't about to promote it on the show.
Oh no. There was absolutely no consideration that they were ever going to promote it on the show. But I think this is a great example of how grassroots social media works. It's proof that we are in the initial stages of a new evolution in how shows can engage with viewers. CBS obviously knows what they're doing. They know how to run a network. But this was just a brand new idea to them.
TVGuide.com: What changed their minds?
After the first two weeks, I showed them a dozen people that said, "I used to DVR and now I watch it live." And that was all it took. I was actually shocked. I would never have even thought of asking them to do that. But they did quickly see that there was something happening here, and it encouraged me to ramp it up even more. I don't have a lot of followers in terms of most celebrities, but my number grew about 400 percent, and I attribute almost all of that to live-tweeting during Survivor episodes.
TVGuide.com: How has this experience changed the way you engage with viewers?
Probst: I've been doing a similar sort of engagement with viewers from day one. Whether I'm at the beach or in an airport, people want to talk about Survivor and they don't just say, "Hey, it's nice to meet you!" They say, "Tell me about Boston Rob" or "Is Russell really as crazy as he seems?" They get very specific because Survivor fans are loyal. We don't have casual viewers. People don't turn on Survivor and say, "I might watch this week." They tend to say, "I've never missed an episode."
TVGuide.com: It must be pretty surreal to have such instantaneous feedback from fans.
It is. You can pose a question and within two or three seconds you'll have several hundred responses, and you're able to go back to the creative team with that intel. In fact, part of the reason Ozzy is on the show is because I randomly tweeted "Who would you like to see back?" So many people said Ozzy, and I called the casting director and I said, "Ozzy is our No. 1." That was the deal-clincher to put him back on the show. It wasn't even a planned idea.
TVGuide.com: And now you've added these Tout videos into the mix — you've been filming 15-second video clips answering viewer questions at commercials. How did that come about?
About eight months ago a friend of mine who is a dean at Harvard started saying, "The next big thing is Tout." He told me that it was basically video-tweeting, and suggested I do it next season. It really stuck in my head. So I decided the best use of Tout for me would be to answer fan questions during commercials, much like letters to an editor, and that's what I've been doing.
TVGuide.com: Last week you asked fans what they thought of your Tout videos. What kind of feedback did you get?
I got a lot of positive feedback. And if it's any indicator, the Tout videos from the first episode had half a million views. I feel like I'm on the ground floor of something, and I want to share this with the audience. I want everyone to feel like we're all discovering something new together, before it becomes Twitter and everybody's doing it.
TVGuide.com: You once said in an interview that you think eventually live-tweeting will be written into actors' contracts. Do you still think that?
If I were starting a show right now and hiring talent, I would absolutely have a clause stating that for X amount of hours or for X amount of episodes, you need to engage in live social media. The idea that somebody in a small town in Nebraska could have a chance to talk to Ashton Kutcher during the premiere of Two and a Half Men is a crazy idea, but if Ashton decides to live-tweet, it could happen. So yes, I think it's the future. I truly believe we are the infancy of what is going to become, in our lifetime, a truly global conversation, where I'll be able to watch an episode of Survivor and on my screen have people from Guam and Brazil and Australia and the U.S. all watching it live with me. Within the next year or two, I want to have an interactive living room with 10 or 12 people from all over the world watching Survivor together. It's happening... it's going to happen.