- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

BALTIMORE

Patrons gather each Wednesday night at Bohager's restaurant to cheer on a dwindling group of strangers, one of whom soon will be declared a millionaire.

The patrons won't get a dime of that bounty. Nor will they have any say in who walks away with the cool million. But still they come, week after week, in sunny weather and in downpours.

For die-hard fans of the summer hit, CBS's "Survivor," there's no better way to gawk at Richard, Susan and company than with fellow voyeurs.

Funny how a show that pits men and women against each other would inspire such an assemblage.

Not that the Bohager's clientele spends much time interacting, at least during show time. Chat and miss seeing Rudy eat a worm or hearing Gervase insult the female castaways with his unenlightened commentary.

Just look at Gretchen L. Kron, 26, of Baltimore's Federal Hill neighborhood, watching a recent installment with her hands clenched and resting on her chin, her index fingers pressed to her lips.

"I've been here every week," Ms. Kron says during a station break. She looks as if she could hold her own if pressed into castaway duty. "It's a good venue to watch it. Everybody has their own opinion."

The sprawling Fells Point eatery, which resembles a "Gilligan's Island" hut on steroids, has been hosting "Survivor" nights since the hit show's third week. Not only can patrons watch each episode on a big-screen television, but fans who successfully pick the right castaway to be voted off the island on a given week are entered into a drawing for a trip for two to Aruba. The giveaway is courtesy of WOCT-FM (104.3), Baltimore's classic rock station, which co-sponsors the weekly gatherings.

For fans who miss out on the Aruba trip, the restaurant is offering a consolation a chance at winning $25,000. Ten customers' names are drawn each week; the resulting 70 (from seven weeks of gatherings) will get a crack at the treasure.

Ms. Kron doesn't disguise her interest in the show. Nor does she think anyone else should.

"Everybody's doing it now … 'Real World,' 'Road Rules,' " she says of two MTV shows that paved the way for the current reality craze. "It's what people are doing behind the scenes. We're curious."

The Tiffany Network will take advantage of that curiosity by airing a live one-hour special with all 16 castaways to run after the two-hour finale Aug. 23. Companies looking to snatch up a 30-second spot that evening will have to vote off $600,000 from their coffers.

For fans like these who can't get enough of would-be millionaires roughing it, the network is planning a sequel. "Survivor 2: The Australian Outback" will bow Jan. 28, following Super Bowl XXXV. The network has received more than 6,200 applications for the follow-up so far, Ms. Kron's among them.

Bohager's may be thousands of miles away from the real Pulau Tiga island where the show was shot, but even a recent evening's monsoonlike conditions couldn't keep fans away.

About 30 people huddled near the television set at Bohager's on the rainy Wednesday along with Ms. Kron, watching with respectful silence as an episode unfolded.

For Baltimore actress Charlene Osborne, 38, being a fan of "Survivor" isn't enough. She, too, planned to lens her own three-minute audition video for the next "Survivor" season.

"I'm single; I'm ready," declares Miss Osborne, who also runs 5-K races and is training for a triathlon. "I'm ready for the challenge.

"I lost my mom this year; I dedicated this year to her," she adds.

Miss Osborne is the first to admit her body doesn't look like those of Jenna or Colleen, two svelte castaways. But then her eyes lock on Richard, the middle-aged contestant who sports a paunch, and she gets inspired.

And what could be more motivating for a fledgling actress than national TV exposure?

Even if the original show didn't grab huge ratings, a "Survivor" sequel would be inevitable, says Harvey Feigenbaum, associate professor of political science at George Washington University.

"They're incredibly cheap [to make], that and game shows," Mr. Feigenbaum says of reality-style programs. Producers don't have to worry about paying star salaries or constructing elaborate sets.

The professor, who is writing a book on the globalization of culture, including the U.S. television and film industries, says "Survivor's" potential for calamity makes it worth the ratings gambit. Even if it blows up, Darva Conger-style, in a network's face.

"That's the attraction, people waiting for something to happen," he says. "That wouldn't happen in a contrived show."

Even those who might not care which castaway emerges victorious can have a rooting interest in the show.

Jim Dunlop, 40, of Bel Air, Md. dropped by Bohager's for a practical purpose.

"I just don't wanna miss what everyone else is talking about at the office," Mr. Dunlop says. "I don't want to be the outsider."

That sound you hear is CBS executives cracking open another crate of Dom Perignon.

Now that he has armed himself with enough "Survivor" lore to keep him afloat at the next coffee klatch, he has found himself drawn to the castaways' plight.

"It's easy to get hooked because we're all voyeurs at heart; its the natural human instinct," he says.

Mr. Dunlop is no stranger to roughing it the kind without camera crews and boom mikes, that is.

"As a teen-ager, I hiked along the Appalachian Trail for a couple of days. It's not easy," he recalls. He has no interest in staking his own claim to the next $1 million bounty, however.

"I don't wanna eat a rat or a bug, no matter what they pay me," he says.

Peggy Charren, a media expert and visiting scholar at Harvard University, credits the show's arcane rituals, such as bug ingesting, for part of its success.

"If they did it without all the peculiar rules, it wouldn't get an audience at all," Ms. Charren says, adding that the voting-off policy carries a feeling similar to that of a fraternity hazing ritual.

But anyone thinking this is an eyeful of an authentic soap opera should think again, she says.

"They structured it so it becomes more like a TV show than reality," she says. "It's an unrealistic reality show."

Don't bother telling that to fans such as Frank Rodriguez, 23, of Baltimore. He's too enmeshed in island politics to listen.

To his credit, Mr. Rodriguez has some experience with the kind of unusual delicacies a future "Survivor" contestant might sample.

"I've spent five weeks in the Dominican Republic without electricity or running water. We ate some kind of lizard-type thing," he says, his face contorting at the memory.

For him, the show may be entertaining, but it also represents a challenge he feels he would be up to.

"I think I could cut it. I'd be all right," he says.

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