'Survivor' Tsunami

It's been four months since Rich returned from Pulau Tiga, the South Pacific island he ruled like a beached Rasputin. Can he live with himself yet? Along with 25 million or so other Americans, Rich has watched every minute of "Survivor"--with his mother at his side. Surely seeing himself whack stalwart Gretchen, belittle easygoing Sean and manipulate shaky Kelly must give him some pause. Yeah, right. As Edith Piaf almost sang, Rich regrets nothing. "I'm not sorry for trying to build an alliance. I'm not sorry for blatantly lying to Jeff at the tribal councils," he says. "I'm happy with the way I played." He's not even sorry for the most naked offense of all: parading around nude for all the country to see.

"I'm often nude, and I was in the middle of the South China Sea in 110-degree weather. Why would I have clothes on?" he says. "The night before Colleen was complaining about my nudity, she and Gervase and Greg were sitting right next to me buck naked around the fire. I don't know if the cameras caught that."

A naked alliance--now there's a team America can root for. Before "Survivor" debuted 13 weeks ago, the pundits whined that "reality" shows were the beginning of the end of television--or worse. They'd kill the sitcom, because they don't require writers and are cheaper to produce. They'd obliterate what's left of Americans' sense of privacy and dignity, too. Nobody's complaining now. "Survivor" is the most addictive show of the year, even without nude shots of Colleen. For those of you who haven't been following along: it all started when 16 contestants in search of adventure and a $1 million grand prize were dumped on a beach near Borneo. They compete in twisted survival games--jungle obstacles, swimming relays, larvae eating. Even more harrowing, they gather for a "tribal council" at the end of every episode and vote to boot somebody from the island. The last person to survive the physical challenges and the Darwinian selection takes home the cash. This isn't just survival--it's office politics played by people who haven't showered for weeks.

"Survivor" is completely over the top--host Jeff Probst snuffs out the loser's tiki lamp before kicking him or her off the stage. But as the players have expired, the audience has exploded. For the last several Wednesdays, the folks on Cutthroat Island have pulled in more viewers than the five other networks combined. They've also performed the biggest TV miracle of the year: people are actually watching Bryant Gumbel's "Early Show," at least on the days when "Survivor" contestants appear. "Survivor" is already the No. 1 show in America, and as many as 40 million viewers may tune in to this week's two-hour finale. The other networks are panting to keep up, though shows like NBC's upcoming "Chains of Love"--where four men are chained to a single woman--seem pretty desperate. "Survivor" has changed what we'll see on the tube for the foreseeable future. "The genie has finally been let out of the bottle," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "After the summer of 2000, there will never be another day in any of our lives where there won't be some of this kind of programming on television."

The most amazing aspect of "Survivor" mania isn't what it's done to television, though. It's what it's done to America. Bars across the country will be hosting "Survivor" parties this week, many offering prizes to people dressed as their favorite contestant. (Better find a pink bikini, fast.) The Web is filled with fan sites devoted to even the goofiest contestants. Budweiser, Reebok and a host of other companies have created "Survivor"-theme ads, though the funniest one is the TVLand spot featuring the "Charlie's Angels" women in mock conversation about how to eat rats. The fact that "The tribe has spoken" has eclipsed "Is that your final answer?" as the cheesy catchphrase of the moment is one cheap but deeply satisfying reward. Even better: who would have thought that in the age of the Internet, where mere rumors can become international news at the click of a mouse, no one has leaked the winner's name?

CBS worked hard to keep the secret. The 16 contestants and 140-person crew all had to sign contracts that would make them liable for $4 million if they revealed the winner. Even the families of the contestants had to sign, saying they wouldn't write tell-all books. But it wasn't just the legal threats that kept people quiet. "CBS would have had a hard time getting $4 million out of me," says Gretchen, a part-time preschool teacher and mother of two. "It's a loyalty to the show. People worked really hard on it." It may not sound like much, but it was apparently enough to buy the players' silence despite some tough appeals. "My grandparents are, like, 'We might die this summer. You need to tell us'," says Dirk. "But we've all got something to gain. Everybody's making money. And everyone wants to be part of TV history."

The four people poised to make the biggest history are the finalists. Rich the conniving corporate trainer, Kelly the conflicted river guide, Rudy the crusty ex Navy SEAL and Sue the cutthroat truckdriver--they're all so famous now we don't even need to give you their last names. It's no coincidence that they're the four people who realized early on that politics and cunning, not traditional survival skills, would determine who'd take home the $1 million. In exclusive interviews with NEWSWEEK, the four members of the Tagi alliance, as their cabal came to be called, admitted they wouldn't have made it this far if they hadn't banded together. "Me, I'm a little outspoken," says Sue. "Besides living with these people, I had to work with them. So I thought, 'Oh, boy, we're going to need some teamwork here'." Like Rich, neither Sue nor Rudy regrets the way they played the game. Kelly is another story. She showed signs of remorse during the last few episodes, and she seems even sorrier now about using a voting bloc to knock out the others. "I thought it was going to be more strictly survival-oriented as opposed to people playing mind games," she says. "It just made me feel crappy about myself."

Wait until she feels the pain of the alliance feeding on itself. We already know that Rich, who handpicked the alliance and worked assiduously to preserve it, is poised to bounce Kelly because she wavered in her fealty to him. But this week's double episode--featuring three tribal councils--will unfold differently from any of the previous ones. Every episode has an "immunity challenge," where the winner dodges expulsion for one round. This time, immunity should play all sorts of tricks. If Kelly wins immunity, will Rich's buddies still side with him? Or will Rudy and Sue turn on the island king? What's more, the final immunity challenges aren't like the ones we've seen so far. They'll be more cerebral, less physical. "Something a little more spiritual," says Mark Burnett, the show's producer. "This was really a profound month. The last couple of immunity challenges relate to the deeper meaning of the adventure experience." The "deeper meaning" of stabbing people in the back? Maybe Burnett has spent too much time in the tropical heat.

The final council will feature the last two players pleading their cases to the previous seven people voted off the island. It should be a doozy. "It's kind of like a judge-and-jury type thing, or jury and executioner," says Ramona. "It's a courtroom scene. I can't describe it better than that. You will not be disappointed." It's hard to imagine any of the deposed contestants voting for Rich or Sue, should they get that far. Then again, Rich seems capable of talking a dog out of his bone. So who will win? We don't know the answer, but our interviews may provide a few clues. It's hard to imagine that Kelly would still be feeling "crappy" if she was taking home $1 million. And when we asked Sue what she'd do differently if she could do it all again, she said, "I'll answer that question after it's over." Sounds like there's something she'd like to have another shot at. Doesn't it? Sort of? That leaves Rudy. But don't take our word for it. Most of the predictions have been dead wrong.

Fact is, all 16 Survivors are winners--or at least most of them have agents. Sean, the doctor with a nipple ring, has three: one for acting, one for speeches, one to peddle his novel. He's already signed up to play a doctor on "Guiding Light" and to work as a medical correspondent on "Extra." Gervase has booked a spot on the sitcom "The Hughleys." Stacey and B.B. shot Reebok commercials. Colleen turned down $100,000 from Playboy, though Jenna is still considering her offer. For her part, Sue says she's not insulted that Hugh Hefner hasn't dropped a line. "Me and Kelly don't belong in Playboy 'cause we've got tattoos," says Sue. "We belong in Hustler--and I heard Larry Flynt pays more!" The only people who won't get 15 more minutes of fame are those who don't grab for it. "I really don't want to be disturbed in my normal life," says Greg, who, given his penchant for talking into coconut shells as if they were telephones, seemed the most eccentric person on the island. He was also the only one to shun the normal round of post-island interviews (except this one). "I just lived in front of the camera. I don't need to do that anymore," Greg says. He says he hasn't even watched many of the episodes. "It's a fine show, but I'm just not a big fan of TV. It doesn't appeal to me."

The biggest fish--the finalists--have yet to hook deals. CBS won't allow them to sign anything until the show is over. Surprisingly, they seem less hellbent on cashing in than the others. Sue would like to lecture on being a woman in a man's job. Rudy is primarily interested in getting on Burnett's new show, where the winner gets a trip to the Mir, the Russian space station. Kelly wouldn't mind acting, but "I'm not beating down anybody's door or anything." Hollywood types predict that, win or lose, Rich will likely have the highest marketability. "Anyone controversial has a shot at being major," says agent Sherri Spillane, who has signed up nine of the Survivors. "He's the man everyone loves to hate. Remember J.R.? Hollywood loves that kind of thing."

Rich begs to differ with the notion that America hates him. Like the rest of the cast, he says he's hounded by autograph seekers almost everywhere he goes. "Everything has been overwhelmingly positive. We're talking fan clubs, support from the gay community. I'm getting marriage proposals from men and women and wonderful naked photos of men," says Rich, who is openly gay on the show. "I mean, just insane amounts of positive contact and two--literally--letters saying, 'you're evil, I hope you die'."

Of course none of the castaways would be a hot commodity if we already knew which of them is the winner. CBS and the contestants aren't the only ones who helped keep the lid on. Lots of bystanders who could have spoiled the fun kept their mouths shut, too. For several weeks, conventional wisdom held that Gretchen, who had taught at the Air Force Survival School, was the winner. "All my friends knew that I came home two weeks before I was supposed to. They could have said, 'She's No. 7. She's not it'," she says. "I'm so proud of everyone for respecting me." Why did they, and everyone else, keep quiet? Sometimes, like when we wouldn't give away the bizarre twist in "The Crying Game," America loves to keep a secret together. "Even stodgy journalists don't want to spoil it," says Professor Thompson. Two of the "Survivor" contestants, B.B. and Sonja, still don't know who won. "I don't want to know," says Sonja. "I opened my Christmas present early one year and it spoiled it."

Not everyone has been willing to wait. A few weeks into the show, a crafty Web site calling itself survivorsucks.com predicted who would be booted off next. It based its forecasts on clues gleaned from the show itself. During the third episode, one eagle-eyed fan noticed that the opening sequence featured a new tribal-council scene--with only nine people, as opposed to the 14 people who still remained on the island at that point. Using that apparent slip, the survivorsucks.com folks deduced--correctly--who the next five victims would be. CBS didn't make that mistake again. In fact, it went on the offensive. The next time the show changed the opening council shot, in week eight, it featured only four people: Gervase, Rudy, Sean and Colleen. Was this another slip? Would they be the final four? For a while survivorsucks.com thought so. "It was a Trojan horse," says Paul Sims, who maintains the site. "Some people believe that video footage was digitally doctored." CBS won't confirm or deny that, though it admits waging a disinformation campaign. "We've been able to throw a couple of curve balls," says CBS Television president Leslie Moonves.

Ironically, Moonves passed on the show three times before finally agreeing to give it a shot. Now "Survivor" has almost singlehandedly revamped CBS's image from the old-fogy network to one of the hottest spots on the remote. The median age of its prime-time audience has dropped four years since "Survivor" debuted. On Thursdays, when every Survivor (except Greg) has appeared for his or her first post-expulsion interview, ratings for "The Early Show" have gone up 25 percent over last year. Even Letterman's ratings have improved somewhat. "We were struggling with an image problem here. We were considered the nice, solid performer, but a little on the safe side," says Moonves. "It's great to be the network that has the water-cooler show."

The money isn't bad either. CBS had presold almost all the advertising spots, which means it got far less than it could have for a program with gargantuan ratings. But it's found a few ways to cash in. Ads for the last hour, which the network didn't sell until the last minute, have gone for as much as $600,000 each. Then Moonves got really crafty: he added a live, hourlong "town hall" special after the two-hour finale where all 16 contestants will reunite to watch the show and talk about their experiences with a studio audience. All told, the three-hour extravaganza could take in $17 million. And that's not even counting the good will that will be generated nationwide by pre-empting one night of the dreadful "Big Brother."

CBS isn't wasting time starting on "Survivor 2." It'll debut on Jan. 28, right after the Super Bowl. Despite the phenomenal success of the original, Burnett plans to change the formula a bit. He's relocating to the Australian outback; it's isolated and picturesque, and there aren't man-eating predators. And he's hoping the contestants will play rougher next time. Burnett says he should never have let the teams fraternize on the boat trip out to Pulau Tiga. "They were very friendly. There wasn't enough tension between the two tribes," he says. Some "Survivor" fans say Burnett must amp up the pressure in order for the sequel to succeed. "The most fun thing about this was having those people figure out how in the world to play the game," says Thompson. "In 'Survivor 2,' every single person will be going into the outback with a Ph.D.-level knowledge of the history of 'Survivor.' The innocence has been entirely lost."

In any event, how could a second "Survivor" cast ever measure up? What could top Stacey's hissing at Sue, "You switched your vote!" after Sue stabbed her in the back? Who could dream up a goofier voting plan than Sean's alphabetical system? ("It was very strategic," he insists. "The proof of the pudding is that I never won immunity, I didn't ally with anybody and I beat out everybody else except the alliance.") Who could be more outrageously un-P.C. than Rudy?

We haven't seen the last of our island friends, thank goodness. Given some of the lingering animosities, the reunion show could be the wildest thing yet. Rudy seems especially ambivalent about seeing the gang again. "Personally, I don't hang around lesbians, queers, hippies, doctors and lawyers, but they're going to bring us all together," he says. And it won't end here. Mattel is releasing a "Survivor" board game in November. CBS is talking about rerunning the show. Stacey says she'd sell her personal island photos. "I've got a roll of 34, and it shows what it was really like," she says. Oh yeah? Moonves says that CBS may come back with some footage of its own. "There may be some sort of tape put out--outtakes of 'Survivor'," he says. "After the immense popularity of the show, everybody wants to see these people again." As long as Rich can keep his pants on.