Thursday, February 13, 2003

'Survivor' swims into the Amazon

Brazilian venue, gender tribes make for a very different contest

By Mike Hughes
Gannett News Service

When Survivor returns today (8 p.m., Channels 12, 7), it will be rushing into some new turf: South America and teaming the men vs. women.

"Certain places are just very evocative," says Joe Ramirez, a travel coordinator who persuaded the show to go to the Amazon.

Mostly, the Amazon evokes images of crocodiles, piranhas and dark secrets. Tonight, the 16 contestants are taken to the river's Brazilian rain forest.

Survivor: The Amazon, the sixth installment of the popular reality contest, strands 16 competitors in a remote location, voting one person out each week. The last person standing collects a $1 million prize.

Going to the Amazon was as much a shock for the host as it was for the contestants. "I'd never been to the Amazon," Jeff Probst says. "All I knew about it was from (reading Joseph Conrad's) Heart of Darkness"

Then there was the men vs. women. The show begins by putting the eight men in one tribe and the eight women in the other. That required some strategy switches.

Some men, says producer Mark Burnett, had planned to use their brawn.

Instead, he says, they found games requiring agility. "These guys looked like they've been pumping iron for 20 years, (but they) couldn't get across the balance beam."

Some women, Probst adds, had counted on their sex appeal to keep from being voted out. Suddenly, that wouldn't work.

"They talked about that in the first day or two," he says, "that this is not the place you want to put on a string bikini to show off your ... tight body. But if we ever merge and there are guys around, clothes are coming off."

Torturous venues

That's been the Survivor story - constant shifts. Burnett has startled competitors by having them switch tribes; he's also used sharply different settings.

The first Survivor was set in a tropical paradise, but the next two - Australia's Outback and Africa - were harsh and unrelenting.

"It was so stifling," Probst recalls of Africa. "I was miserable - and I had a tent to go back to."

Viewers were miserable, too. They didn't enjoy seeing stagnant, sweaty people who had little chance to swim or fish; ratings dropped.

The show switched tone after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and went to the South Pacific, then Thailand.

"I just like water," says Probst, who would like to see Survivor try Iceland or Greenland.

Rain forest goes forever

About 3,900 miles long, the Amazon is the largest river in the world in volume. It is second to the Nile in length. It's often so wide that people can't see both sides at once. Near its delta, one of its islands is larger than Rhode Island.

"It's incredibly large," says Ramirez. "It has something like 10 percent of the world's rain forest. ... There are places where there are no signs of civilization."

This is not like anywhere else the show has been, Burnett says. "It's not even on that planet. It's really a wonderful place, 2.5 million miles of the greatest rain forest on Earth."

The setting has its surprises.

One is the look of the Rio Negro. "The water is completely black," he says. "But it's considered to be the cleanest water in the world."

Another is the proximity of crocodiles and more. "The Rio Negro is teeming with piranha," Ramirez says. "But the natives swim in it."

Eventually, the Survivor contestants swam, too. "They were scared to death, didn't want to go near the water," Burnett says. "But a third of the way through ... they're swimming."

Their hunting was limited to a few ratlike critters, but their fishing was easier.

"There were tons ... of fish," Burnett says. "Assuming the fish you catch don't bite off your finger."

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