Who Will Be Final Survivor?

Monday, August 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Well, who's it gonna be: Rudy, Richard, Kelly or Susan?

If you can't place these names, if ``Tagi'' and ``Pagong'' don't ring a bell, you must have squandered your summer at the beach, ballpark or backyard grill.

Everybody else has been bingeing on ``Survivor,'' CBS' Darwinistic campout. And come Wednesday, after 12 tension-building episodes, the mystery — who won this crazy game show? — will be revealed.

``Don't believe everything you hear. Be ready for anything. Watch your back.'' That's the way to survive on this island, according to ``Survivor'' host Jeff Probst.

On Wednesday, Probst will preside over the multiround elimination process that will decide the show's one true survivor — the one who was spared by luck and cunning from exile by all the others. And who then will have a million bucks.

It's been a real endurance test, and not just for the 16 castaways who marooned themselves on that island near Borneo.

What was it about the show that kept viewers watching all summer? What inspired the viewing parties with tropical drinks and fake bugs in the guacamole dip? The heated weekly debate over who will be voted off the island? (And for that matter, what made ``voted off the island'' the latest fad expression?)

One big attraction is the ritual punishment of the tribal council vote. Watching someone banished is cruel fun.

``People enjoy being mean,'' says Steven Reiss, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University. ``It's tough to acknowledge, but it explains a lot of human behavior. And we need relatively harmless outlets for that.''

Pulitzer Prize-winning TV writer Tom Shales damned ``Survivor'' as ``a worthless piece of crap.'' Other critics who decry so-called ``reality TV,'' however, make a sporting exception for ``Survivor.''

They like the eye-popping scenery; the slick production values that juice up the story as it naturally unfolds; the love 'em, hate 'em cast of characters; the psychological intrigue; the subversive alliances.

Each castaway must live with the conundrum of needing the others' support while contriving to do them in.

You might call it ``Iron John Meets Sammy Glick.'' Or, as executive producer Mark Burnett summed up, ``This is like an extreme version of an office or a large family.''

``Survivor'' started with a bang back on May 31, then saw its audience get even bigger. Perched in the Nielsen top spot every week since its fourth broadcast, it drew its largest audience yet last week — 28.7 million viewers.

Chris Loria was among them, as he has been since Day One. A real estate professional from Riverside, Calif., he loves talking about ``Survivor'' at work. He prowls the ``Survivor'' Web site. He even glories in his advantage over most West Coast fans: With his satellite dish, he catches the East Coast feed of ``Survivor'' three hours earlier.

``I've never seen anything like it on TV,'' Loria says.

But, of course, he really has. That's the program's charm: It's a soap opera, sportscast, whodunit.

As for who won it, that actually was decided back on April 20, the show's 39th and final day on the island. Since then, remarkably, the network has managed to keep the secret — despite no end of attempts, particularly by computer hackers, to unveil it.

The conclusion, with all its artificial immediacy, plays out over two hours Wednesday, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern, to be followed by an hour-long live reunion chat with all 16 castaways.

``I think the oversell of the drama is part of the fun,'' says Probst, who will announce the results.

``Survivor'' arrived on American television in a wave of so-called ``reality'' programming. Its direct forebear is a popular Swedish series, ``Expedition Robinson,'' but the real impetus came from a British import called ``Who Wants to be a Millionaire,'' which premiered on ABC a year ago and was an instant sensation.

``Millionaire'' spawned game show clones, which quickly flopped.

Then Fox, which had found success with reality programming in the outrageous manner of ``World's Most Shocking Moments,'' thought it had the perfect hybrid: a game show crossed with a sleazy spectacle. Airing one day after Valentine's, ``Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'' was not only embarrassing but bogus and something of a scandal. Fox pledged to clean up its act.

Then CBS announced two series that sounded no less weird: ``Survivor'' and a Dutch import, ``Big Brother.''

``Big Brother,'' which premiered July 5 and airs six times a week, records the vapid life of contestants sequestered in a camera-arrayed house. Many viewers complain that watching paint dry on that house would be more interesting.

But the networks hope to jolt you with more such series in the months ahead.

Burnett, red-hot thanks to ``Survivor,'' is developing ``Destination Mir,'' which would blast a contestant into outer space. And in January, immediately after CBS' Super Bowl telecast, his ``Survivor 2'' will premiere, taped in the Australian outback.

Fair dinkum, mate. But for now, it seems, life just won't be the same off the island.


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