- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

There's no money involved, and the noble group matters more than the rugged individualist.

Nevertheless, China is concocting its own version of "Survivor," to be broadcast before a possible audience of several hundred million viewers late next month. To date, the term "reality TV" has not been part of the Chinese vocabulary.

That will soon change.

China's National Television is sending 16 persons — equipped with 10 matches each and a few food rations — to the southwest mountains near Tibet for a month. Their trials and tribulations will be filmed daily amid 13,000-foot peaks and rocky terrain, then broadcast the same day by satellite.

Though the show has alternately been billed as the exotic "Journey to Shangri-La" and "Castaway," producers have already given the proceedings a specific spin.

The winning four-person team gets no cash, according to Beijing-based production company Weihan Culture and Media, but rather "the fulfillment of a dream, such as world travel, foreign study or starting a business."

Querulous contestants won't be voting each other off the mountain, either.

"Via the discoveries and experiences of survival by individuals and the group, we hope to produce a report on the outlook for survival of the Chinese people," the company announced last week.

More than 200,000 people have applied to compete since a casting call went out in April, including gold miners, villagers, office workers, students, one grandmother and a 70-year-old Chinese version of Rudy Boesch, the retired Navy Seal who came in third in the first American "Survivor" last summer.

A committee has narrowed down the roster to 60 finalists and will announce the final team this week.

With 700 TV stations, 3,000 cable systems and a population of 1.3 billion, the potential Chinese audience is formidable, dwarfing the 20 million to 50 million viewers who have tuned in for American "Survivor" incarnations in past months.

Some think the Chinese are quite ready for the allure of reality TV, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Beijing writer John Schauble says the citizenry is hankering for anything other than the "staple diet of revolutionary propaganda films ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1."

"What is perhaps surprising is that there is room for a survival program in a country where physical survival is a day-to-day reality for about 200 million Chinese estimated to be living in absolute poverty," Mr. Schauble said last week.

Meanwhile, CBS has a few cultural underpinnings of its own at stake as they gear up to produce "Survivor III" in the Shaba reserve in Kenya late this summer. Security for the cast, crew and media hangers-on is paramount in the East African nation, which has been troubled by civil unrest and political turmoil in recent years.

Human rights organizations are already worried that the show may gloss over Kenya's problems for the sake of entertainment alone. Nonsense, said producer Mark Burnett, who figures that any increased awareness of the country can be positive, regardless of the source.

"I'm apolitical," Mr. Burnett told TV Guide. "I don't know what the politics of President Moi are. I think we will be a lot safer here than we would be in most American cities. What's the perception of a lot of foreigners about America when they hear about Waco?"

Mr. Burnett is convinced that the spectacular landscape eclipses the security risk.

"We say with 'Survivor' that after the 16 contestants, the 17th character is the land — and this place will make an amazing character," he said.

CBS will also produce a celebrity version of the show, rumored to include the likes of actors Ray Romano and Kevin James, L.A. Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant, actress Kate Hudson and radio shock jock Howard Stern.

"We've talked about a celebrity version," CBS President Les Moonves told Mr. Stern on the air last week. "I think you'd be great on it."

Mr. Stern, however, had his own vision of a suitable celebrity challenge. Famous contestants, he said, would be "forced to ride in an elevator with the public, or have their limos taken away for 10 days."

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