- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

PULAU TIGA, Malaysia

Catch fish with a bamboo spear and roast rats over an open fire. Help another castaway track down water but don't sabotage your own chances for survival by calling her a stupid cow.

Outwit, outlast.

That's the motto of a group of adventurous Americans who are vying for a million bucks on this little island off the coast of Borneo.

Sixteen back-stabbing castaways, captured on film by camera crews lurking behind palm fronds and coral reefs, are trying to outfox each other as well as vipers, poisonous plants and other natural perils.

In a bid to capitalize on Americans' obsession with reality TV, CBS is throwing millions of dollars behind "Survivor," which is to air in 13 weekly episodes beginning May 31. The network chose eight women and eight men a mix of personalities and professions and turned them loose on this lush rain-forest island.

"This is like an extreme version of an office or a large family," executive producer Mark Burnett told the Associated Press during a two-day visit to the island, allowed only after agreeing not to talk to contestants or reveal who remained halfway into the six-week contest.

"People are out for themselves and only themselves," said Mr. Burnett, creator and producer of the "Eco Challenge" series on the Discovery Channel. "Yet all 16 people will grow a bit stronger and may discover who they really are out here."

The castaways are working together to survive, yet every third night they hold secret ballots around a "tribal council" campfire to kick out one contestant, who is escorted away by helicopter with a consoling psychologist.

One of the first men voted off the island had been overheard saying something to the effect that the only thing stupider than a woman was a cow. Big mistake.

"The united women's front got that guy off the island right away," Mr. Burnett said. "They all mooed at him and he was gone."

Everything is unscripted and the emotions are real. Not only are the castaways competing for $1 million, their every action will be judged by American viewers who could turn them into national celebrities or just turn them off.

On the 21st night, during the tribal council at which the number of castaways was cut to nine, the sunburned, exhausted contestants nervously chatted with host Jeff Probst and then marched off one by one to blackball someone.

"We love to see ourselves represented in reality TV," said Mr. Probst, who mediates the tribal councils and conducts on-camera interviews. "You start peeling away layer after layer and you get at the truth."

Does Hollywood ever really get at the truth?

The survivors are indeed camping out on the beach beneath a makeshift hut of hand-cut rattan and palm fronds. They're catching their own fish and stomaching field rats for protein to conquer the wilting heat and humidity.

But though CBS on its Web site first promoted "Survivor" as being filmed on a "deserted" island "untouched by humans for centuries," reports pointing out that park rangers live there and a resort is under way forced the network to concede the island is merely remote.

And survivors do stand a chance of stumbling onto modern production equipment. Tons of sound and lighting equipment have been shipped in, generators keep the crew cabins and editing rooms air conditioned, and satellite TV and rock music blare beneath the neon sign at Survivor Bar.

"If you were really on a deserted island, you wouldn't be participating in a water-torture race," shrugged Mr. Probst. "So, it's a cool combination of game show and psychological drama. They can vote you off simply because they don't like you or simply because you're too good."

On the 21st night, the castaways ousted a woman who was by all accounts one of the most likable and capable contestants. Several other women appeared stunned and jumped up to hug her before she dashed off.

Mr. Probst said he was surprised at how devious the contestants had become.

"When these people finally watch themselves, they're going to be amazed at what went down here," he said. "It's the ultimate social experiment."

Starting out, there was a 72-year-old retired Navy SEAL, a 38-year-old female truck driver and several attractive young college students who romp around in sexy sarongs. There was Sonja, a 62-year-old musician, and Sean, a 30-year-old neurologist who no doubt will capture many female viewers.

When the group is whittled down to the final pair, the last eight kicked off the island will decide who becomes the celebrity millionaire. Another half-million dollars will go to the losers, with the first runner-up taking home $100,000 and the others getting a share depending on how long they lasted.

"But they're all getting a multimillion-dollar experience," said Mr. Burnett.

The show is based on a popular Swedish production, "Expedition Robinson," which has been filming in Malaysia for three years. The producers of that show are still trying to live down the suicide of the first contestant to be voted off the island.

Mr. Burnett said he had "zero" concern about a copycat suicide.

Of 6,000 applicants, CBS interviewed 800 persons. Forty-eight then were flown to Los Angeles for 10 days of grilling and six hours of psychological tests. "It's all in choosing people who are really strong to begin with," said Mr. Burnett.

Gene Ondrusek, the psychologist who greets the losers as they are voted out, spends the night talking with them in a tent on the beach and then flies back with them to Kota Kinabalu for debriefing at a luxury resort.

"I try to prepare them for what may happen back home," said Mr. Ondrusek. "If they obtain the celebrity status, which I think they will, it may be as challenging as anything they've gone through here."

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