Survivor 2 Back to Reality

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Can a new version in the Australian outback-and lots of imitators-remake the regular season?

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? 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 website 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. E.T., 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."

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