Jeff Probst, <EM>Survivor: Panama — Exile Island</EM> Jeff Probst, Survivor: Panama — Exile Island

Are the exiled really alone on CBS' Survivor: Panama Exile Island? And how much does host Jeff Probst know before tribal council? TV Guide scavenges for the answers to those questions and more, unearthing along the way an immunity-idol twist that you did not see coming.

A big deal was made in the promotion of the banishment to Exile Island as this season's new twist. Why do they show so little of what happens there?
"The notion of Exile Island was to remove someone socially as well as physically from the game," says Probst. "But there's simply not enough time, and you would see the same thing over and over: People hungry, sitting in the rain and trying to figure out how many more hours until they can go back to their beach."

When a contestant is sent to Exile Island, how many people are really there?
"Most of the time there's just one associate producer who's also acting as a camera operator," Probst says. "At certain times, we'll send a cameraman and an audio person. But even in those cases, there is zero interaction, unless the producer decides to interview the castaway about what's going on. You ask anybody who's spent a night on Exile Island and I think they'll tell you that they felt very much alone."

This is Jeff's 12th season hosting Survivor. What toll does the game take on him?
"When I started the first season I weighed 182, and I'm 5'9". Now I weigh 165 and I'm much more fit," Probst says. "There was a time when I got really thin and just wasn't feeling good personally. But I've definitely got a routine now. We have a kitchen department that cooks food for 400 people from 20 different countries, so the menu is not what you're used to back home. I bring a lot of food supplements to make sure I've got the kind of diet I want."

Are crew members allowed to eat or drink in front of castaways?
"Never," Probst says. "We're very conscious of not having water bottles around or people snacking on protein bars in front of [the contestants]. We try to cover our watches so they don't know what time it is. We're very aware of crew members smoking and try to refrain from doing anything in front of the castaways that would remind them of what they're missing."

Is it a good idea for any contestant  like Shane, who's trying to quit a three-pack-a-day smoking habit cold turkey  to try to change his ways on Survivor?
"There are probably better times to try to quit smoking," Probst says. "Everybody saw the signs that Shane was detoxing from the get-go. In addition, he put himself in a position where there's no food, no water. And he's with people he doesn't know and probably doesn't like. And he's away from his son." His chances for staying off the smokes aren't great: According to Mary
Ella Douglas
of the American Lung Association, Shane has "cut himself off at the knees without any support. We say in our clinic that the first six months are the most vulnerable and that the people who are most successful go through behavior modification, use nicotine-replacement therapy and the drug Zyban, in combination. He doesn't have access to any of that."

Have Exile Island and the hidden immunity idol changed the way the game is being played?
"I am a student of Survivor, and so many cardinal rules are being broken left and right," says ousted contestant Bobby Mason, whose torch got snuffed in Episode 5. "Danielle, Courtney and Shane are three of the weakest players who've ever played the game, and they're still there. In the real world, when a group of weaklings like that get together, the whole group is weaker. But on Survivor, they become a strong force."

How much does Jeff know about the goings-on in the camps before tribal council, and how long does it typically last?
"I know the big events, like if a camp burned down from a fire," Probst says. "But in terms of the minutiae from day to day... not much. If somebody's just whining, I won't know about it, because everybody whines. But if there's a legitimate concern that a person may quit tonight at tribal council, then yes, I need to know that. Tribal council lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half."

How does the show get away with challenges that include smashing humanlike skulls? It seems disrespectful to the native people.
"That is a fair criticism," Probst says. "The truth is that the skulls are made in our art department. They're props. [There used to be pirates and looting on the Pearl Islands, for example.] Killing each other was a big part of what they did  skulls washed up on shore. So it was our way of referencing that culture. But I certainly understand the intent of the question. And the feedback we get from questions like these go directly from me to our executive producers."

Will the secret immunity idol continue to wreak havoc with the castaways' strategies for the remainder of the season?
"Terry hasn't used the idol yet, but he may soon. Since the merging of his tribe La Mina, where he was the unrivaled leader, with the opposing Casaya, it seems only a matter of time before the surviving Casaya members try to vote him out. If they do, and he uses the idol, the vote could backfire on Casaya, since whoever gets the second-most votes will be sent home.
"And get this  the idol will live on. If Terry uses it to save himself, the idol will be rehidden on Exile Island. This means that players may want to be banished to the hellish island to find it and put its mojo to work all over again!"

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