Sunday, August 20, 2000

'Survivor' has the power

Show's creator avows wildly successful summer series is a case study in human behavior

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Survivor creator Mark Burnett “was scared to death.”

        Not about snakes and rats roaming the remote South China Sea island where he marooned 16 people in March.

[photo] Survivor creator Mark Burnett
(CBS photo)
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        Not about trying to edit 150 hours of videotape into an interesting one-hour TV show.

        Not about fear the $1 million winner would be revealed before the most popular summer series in TV history concludes Wednesday (8-10 p.m., Channels 12, 7)

        What shook the Englishman to his core was the scorn of peers who said his Survivor series would never work.

        “People said to me: That's ridiculous. It's never going to work. People will laugh at you for trying to make reality dramatic,” he said.

        One person told him to decide whether he was making a TV game show, an adventure show, or a TV drama. Another told him the “Tribal Council” for participants to vote a peer off the island was too hokey.

  What: Survivor
  When: 8-10 p.m. Wednesday
  Where: Channels 12, 7
  Reunion: The 16 contestants will be interviewed after the finale Wednesday (10-11 p.m., Channels 12, 7)
        “I couldn't sleep at night,” he said. “I was really agonizing because I thought: These experts know so much more than me. Maybe I'm wrong.

        “And then I thought: If I'm going to fail, I might as well fail with what is in my head. And so I did just what I thought I wanted to do. And fortunately I was right.”

        Right, indeed. Survivor has drawn more than 28 million viewers nationally and 45 percent of Tristate viewers (212,200 households).

        The record ratings have spawned dozens of imitators, as networks scramble for more “reality” shows that do not require high-paid actors or writers.

        But the success of Survivor was from more than just a concept. The shrewdly manipulative editing artfully compressed 150 hours of video from three boring days into 45 fast-paced minutes packed with character revelations, competition, back-stabbing and surprise plot twists before someone was voted off the island.

        “Survivor is a fabulously crafted drama. It's a soap opera,” said Les Moonves, CBS Television president and CEO. “Mark Burnett has created something that is spectacular, and I think people are really gripped by it.

        “Most of the top creators of television are hooked on Survivor just like everybody else,” said Mr. Moonves, who will debut Survivor 2: The Australian Outback after CBS' Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28.

        Mr. Burnett, a former British Army Parachute Regiment section commander, said his “non-fiction improvisational drama” has struck a nerve because of our adventuresome spirit.

        “Like Robinson Crusoe, we all like the idea of adventure. One thing that is timeless, since Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean ... is an adventure,” he said. “We all want one because, I can assure you, you won't be finding the meaning of life inside your laptop.”

    Which of the final four will be the $1 million Survivor?

    Richard Hatch, 39, corporate trainer, Newport, R.I.

    Why he could win: First to understand the “outwit” part, organizing the “Tagi” tribe alliance to eliminate rival “Pagong” tribe.

    Why he won't: The gay man's nude birthday romp disgusted other contestants.

    Quote: “I'm very comfortable being naked. I'm not ashamed of the way I look, and it's very relaxing.”

    Susan Hawk, 38, truck driver, Palmyra, Wis.

    Why she could win: Has talked about double-crossing her Tagi pal Richard.

    Why she won't: Lied about existence of a Tagi alliance at Tribal Council.

    Quote: “I never trusted Rich. Right now, I don't trust anyone but Kelly. We're like sisters.”

    Rudy Boesch, 72, retired Navy SEAL, Virginia Beach, Va.

    Why he could win: Wily Vietnam veteran survived several attempts to vote him off the island in the first weeks.

    Why he won't: Younger castaways usually win physical challenges.

    Quote: “The homosexual (Richard), he was one of the nicest guys I've ever met.”

    Kelly Wiglesworth, 22, river guide, Las Vegas, Nevada.

    Why she could win: Could slip through if Richard and Susan are eliminated.

    Why she won't: Susan and Richard don't completely trust her.

    Quote: “I'm here to play the game. I don't give a rat's (bleep) what people think.”

        Viewers love Survivor because it represents a microcosm of America, said Joel Klug, an Arkansas health club consultant and one of the 16 contestants in the competition to “outlast, outplay and out-wit” one another for $1 million.

        “It's every part of America on this show,” says Mr. Klug, 27. “Some people are going to band together. Some people could try to go on their own. Some people have a hard time stabbing other people in the back to win in every part of life. And that's what it is. That's why I love it, and that's why everybody else loves it, too.”

        The five Survivor outcasts who met with TV critics last month said they were prepared for the physical competition — but not mentally for the group dynamics and alliances necessary to survive.

        “I didn't do the out-wit part of it very well. I didn't even think of it. (But) I was prepared to outlast and outplay,” said B.B. Andersen, 64, a retired Kansas contractor and developer.

        “I naively did not prepare the way I should have prepared,” said Gretchen Cordy, 38, a part-time preschool teacher from Tennessee. “There's a lot more to that game than building fire.”

        This fascinating case study in human behavior even attracted the attention of Harvard University's psychology department. But Mr. Burnett turned down Harvard's request to send a team to Survivor island during filming.

        “It's an amazing psychological study of people,” he said. “This kind of an experiment has been talked about for many years. But we didn't allow them (Harvard researchers) to come, because it was too complicated ... (determining) what they could and couldn't write about. But it was a great honor to have such a great institution consider it serious.”

        Mr. Burnett has supervised each episode, as editors literally assembled a million-piece jigsaw puzzle. The May 31 opening, when the 16 castaways jumped from a ship and rafted to the island, was filmed over seven hours by 23 camera operators. Ten camera crews filmed contestants around-the-clock on the island as they hunted, fished, ate, argued and slept.

        “I'm driving people crazy,” he said. “But my job, as a show runner, is to make sure what's in my head gets on the screen.”

        While America watches the Survivor finale this week, Mr. Burnett will be in Borneo filming the eight-team Eco-Challenge endurance competition to air in April on USA cable. His Eco-Challenge Morocco won the Sports Emmy for program achievement this year.

        Then he'll head to the Australian Outback in October for Survivor 2, where 16 Americans will be stranded on private property.

        “It will have an aborigine cave-dwelling feel. The tribal council is above a thundering beautiful waterfall surrounded by eucalyptus trees,” said Mr. Burnett, who also has scouted Tibet, Mongolia and South Africa for future Survivor shows.

        “Tribal council will be at sunset, not night, so I can have my camera shots circling around. It will be like Stonehenge.”

        The second time around, his crew may shoot less footage — or not. “We're more disciplined, but you know, the cheapest thing on this show is the tape. I can't come back and not have something,” he said.

        The Outback participants will be more conniving than the original Survivor group, he predicted.

        “People may play the game a little differently ... with their group dynamics,” he said. “This time, clearly, all 16 of them will understand mini- and self-alliances.”

        As expected, Mr. Burnett and the five Survivor cast members refused to identify the $1 million winner. The producer would only say: “I'm very surprised at the outcome.”

        He also offered this insight to his show: “The key to Survivor is realizing that power must be granted. It cannot be taken.”

KIESEWETTER: Reality has taken over network TV

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