'Survivor 2': Back to Reality

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So much depends on a raw cow's brain. At least it does if you are Mark Burnett, executive producer of "Survivor" and "Survivor: The Australian Outback," with a rich deal to produce "Survivors" 3 and 4 for CBS and a big, fat secret to guard — the outcome of a game that drew almost 52 million viewers for its finale last August. On that secret rest millions of dollars and the fortunes of a network. So pose him an innocent question — is it true the "S2" contestants ate raw cow's brains? — and you will get a stone-faced, "I can't say."

Within the paranoid world of "Survivor" fandom, it is almost plausible that any revelation about the cow's brain — that crucial fact!— could lead some talented detective to the solution and bring down the house of cards. ("Raw cow's brain? Yes... it all fits! The winner is Colby!") Last year rabid fans scoured video stills and images swiped from CBS computers to glean clues, some accurate, some not, about which Survivor would next get booted. But Burnett played the would-be spoilers like a baby grand, impishly editing footage and planting red-herring files at the official web site to flummox them. At the "S2" location, besieged by journalists spying from the air and infiltrators trying to break in on the ground, 25 guards, some on horseback, some wearing infrared glasses, patrolled the 25-mile perimeter around the camp ready to escort intruders away. Burnett insists the guards are always polite, but he adds, "I'm very serious about security."

In this game-within-the-game lies something essential about "Survivor." Much ink has been spilled about the show's meaning since it conquered TV last summer. Yes, it's about the voyeuristic impulse. Yes, it's about greed, brains and stamina. Yes, it's about a television business in flux. But in a word, "Survivor" is about control.

Control of information: CBS placed everyone from the new contestants to the casting director off limits to interviews and required journalists visiting the set to sign legal agreements not to reveal certain news. (TIME turned down a visit under those conditions.) Control of the cast: The Survivors can be fined $5 million if they spill the beans, and CBS has ironfisted control over their show-biz futures of a kind known to few besides boy-band recruits and '30s movie stars. Control of the spoils: The series is a brilliantly conceived marketing device used to promote the CBS schedule, from Bryant's "Early Show" to Dave's "Late Show," and it has advertising built right into the content. Control, if indirectly, of network programming: As a rash of new reality TV (a term Burnett disdains) arrives, "S2" lands like an 800-lb. kangaroo to battle NBC's venerable "Must-See TV" lineup. And control of the audience. Until the debut, Burnett and company plan to tease you to death about "S2" and make you like it.

The challenge facing Burnett and crew is a bit like getting ready to do the second season of "The Sopranos," except this time the original cast is gone, the whole world is trying to steal your ideas — oh, and this time you have to move to Moscow and make the show about the Russian Mafia. On "S2," which bows in after the Super Bowl Jan. 28, before moving to Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET, some things remain familiar: 16 people still arrive in a remote setting with minimal supplies, divide into two tribes (Kucha and Ogakor — that's "kangaroo" and "crocodile" in Aborigine) and vote to expel members at tribal councils. They compete to win challenges designed around nature and the elements — in Water Torture, strong players are loaded down with heavy buckets of H2O. The grand prize is $1 million. And Jeff Probst, America's favorite tropical bartender, hosts.

The big change is what Burnett calls "the 17th character": the outback. The inland site, chosen for its varied terrain — rocky outcroppings, dramatic waterfalls — in many ways makes Pulau Tiga look like St. Kitts, says Burnett. Infested with spiders, venomous snakes and crocodiles, it offered little cover, exposing contestants to torrential rains, nighttime cold and 100-degree heat (and the shoot lasted 42 days this time, not 39). "The physical suffering was far greater than anything you've seen," Burnett claims. "It makes you want to cry for them."

That is, if you like them. Memorable "characters" — like "S1"'s cuddly Colleen, trash-talkin' Susan and salty homophobe Rudy — are crucial to reality shows, and they are as painstakingly cast as those in any Hollywood blockbuster. And sequels are tough. The first season of MTV's "The Real World" was an unusual if sometimes precious social experiment with an eclectic group of youth. The second was packed with annoying prima donnas dying to break into show biz. Who wants to watch a cast of 16 scheming Richards — or worse, 16 Gregs, whipping out coconut phones (eucalyptus phones?) in hopes of becoming breakout stars?

Nearly 50,000 people — more than eight times as many as answered the first call — applied. The resulting cast, ranging from a retired cop to a chef, is noticeably younger (the oldest is 53) and more buff than its predecessor. "There is a sexuality to this show that 'S1' didn't have," says Probst. "People chop down trees in bikinis." And, he says, having watched "S1," they all come to the outback with a strategy in mind: "This second group would squash ["S1" winner] Richard Hatch like a gnat; that's how much more prepared they are. And they think they might have a movie career when it's over, so they are all playing to the camera."

How well they cash in will largely be up to CBS. The first group of Survivors got a taste of post-"Survivor" show biz, mainly on shows from CBS or its Viacom siblings, including "JAG," "Becker," "Nash Bridges" and UPN's "Freedom." But the network retains control over their availability. Jenna Lewis and Gervase Peterson had to turn down $10,000 to open a Best Buy retail store, for fear of alienating sponsor Target. Even Hatch was denied the chance to be a host of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," and CBS kiboshed his plans for a "Survivor" book. "Basically, CBS owns the rights to their stories in perpetuity," says journalist Peter Lance, who was to cowrite with Hatch. (In his own book, "The Stingray," Lance charged that "Survivor" producers tried to influence the game's outcome — a potential FCC violation — which CBS denies.)

CBS, on the other hand, is ready to ingest "S2" revenue through every conceivable orifice. The first "Survivor" was an advertisers' bargain, with most ads sold in advance for far less than the ratings would have commanded. Now it's time to back up the money truck. "S2" is reportedly getting more per ad than "ER," the reigning revenue champ — all for a show that has never aired in the regular season. And as on the past "Survivor," in which contestants quaffed Bud Light and used an Ericsson phone, there will be product placements from the likes of Reebok, Doritos and Target.

But the greatest potential prize is the head of Jennifer Aniston. CBS daringly slotted its hit against longtime NBC hit "Friends," hoping to bolster its own schedule and cripple TV's most successful slate for its rival. "When you have a weapon like 'Survivor,' you use it," says CBS-TV president and CEO Leslie Moonves. Analysts like "Survivor"'s chances. Says Guy McCarter, senior vice president and director of entertainment marketing for media buyer OMD USA: "'Friends' will take a hit." Many viewers, he suspects, will tape it and watch "S2," a blow to the sitcom's value.

NBC's new entertainment president, Jeff Zucker, has said the network will counter with celebrity stunt casting on "Friends" and lineup changes. But it will be a bloody good fight, not just for ratings but possibly for the future direction of TV. "Friends" — a scripted hit with actors who get more expensive with every contract — is the old-line antithesis of "Survivor," a moneymaking machine with disposable stars and no writers. (Even its product placements may be a sign of TV's future, when digital video recorders could allow viewers to skip traditional commercials.)

And if a looming writers' strike hits this summer, some of the cheap reality shows likely to fill the airtime could stay on after the strike ends, especially if "Survivor" demonstrates the genre's viability. That may also depend on the continued success of a wave of just-debuted knock-off reality shows that began last week (see boxes) — not unlike the game shows that, exactly this time last year, assumed it would be easy to mimic "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Say, what time is "Winning Lines" on, anyway?

But imitators' success or failure won't matter to "S2" if the casting and intense Outback conditions deliver the goofiness, queasiness and drama of the first. Oh, and about that raw cow's brain? "They eat all parts of the cow," Probst confides coyly. "We give the contestants the staples of the Outback, and that means all parts of the cow, raw. But we cut it up for them." With 14 fresh episodes of last year's biggest pop-culture hit and a buff, bikinied cast, CBS thinks it has the raw, red meat its audience wants. Let's hope it didn't go bad in that hot Australian sun.