'Survivor' Winner Tina Wesson

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Sole 'Survivor': Tina

Why We Chose Her
Because she helped transport entertainment into the realm of news (see MSNBC.com, abcnews.com and CNN.com), because she won the million bucks, and because while the novelty of cramming 16 castaways onto some deserted isle has now officially left the building — and Tina Wesson was certainly no Richard Hatch — "Survivor 2" was still a big deal in this TV nation of ours.

Estimated ratings for the luxuriously padded two-hour finale were 20 percent off last year's Neil Armstrong numbers — and estimated water-cooler chatter on Friday morning was off 30 percent — but "Survivor 2: The Sequel" still beat NBC's stunt-studded "Friends" handily on a weekly basis and still gets more people talking than any network show out there. ("Back From the Outback," a where-are-they-now cleanup show charged with sopping up the last of CBS' May-sweeps spoils next week, may finally yield to the aging Peacock gang.) Here's management's leverage in the Hollywood strike talks: For the second year in a row, actor- and writer-free Reality TV was the headliner of the boob-tube season.

And when it comes to Reality TV, "Survivor" is still king. What is it about this show? There's the high-school-flashback factor, getting to watch alliances form and shift and disintegrate according to social winds none of us have ever fully understood. There's the simple lure of schadenfreude, getting to cackle on the couch as 16 Real, Ordinary People are stranded far from civilization and have to scratch, claw and starve their way to 15 runners-up and one winner. (And there's the "bah" factor. "Bah," we say. "Can't these people even catch a fish?")

The simplest reason is that the show is built for suspense, and those who watch each week do so because they can be secure in the knowledge that they're not trying to outguess some over-appreciated TV writer with clichés for brains — this stuff unfolds like a live-on-tape sporting event (unless you believe the lawsuits) and all CBS can do is edit it to look like fictional television. Which it does very skillfully, even when there's no action whatsoever to work with.

"I don't care how many Survivors you have," Colby said, "you'll never be able to predict the winner." And I don't care how unabashedly plastic the Live in the CBS Studio Tribal Council finale was — we'll forgive almost anything as long as it preserves the suspense.

Last season CBS had the market cornered, rolling out "Survivor" and "Big Brother" and coming up with one phenomenon and one dud. The rest of television spent the summer boning up, and since then "The Mole" came and quietly went, "Temptation Island" drew viewers but scared away advertisers, "The Weakest Link" took "Survivor"-style ruthlessness into the lavish confines of the game-show studio, and "Boot Camp" proved that slavish imitation of a business model can still pay off in this business.

Next up: ABC's "The Runner," in which the viewing audience turns group bounty hunter, hoping to stumble across a "Fugitive"-like contestant at, say, the local McDonald's. (This one will shatter Jeff Probst's existing record for most shameless product placement.)

But "Survivor 3" will be here before you know it. Probst will be back, with 16 ambitious new castaways in tow, camped out for 43 days in some faraway place (the word is, Africa). It won't be quite as breathless as "Survivor 2" — would the second season be as big as the first? — which in turn wasn't as breathless as "Survivor 1," which wasn't going to be an easy act to follow anyway.

CBS's business-siders, of course, will probably pretend that it is, and slather on another layer of hype, glory, postmortem get-togethers, affiliate appearances and product placements next season. Forgive them — this thing practically saved their whole network, after all.

And we'll probably watch. Because no matter how hackneyed the trappings get, there's still a fresh beast at the heart of every season: A cast of 16 ordinary money-hunters and exposure-seekers who find out what it's like to want to be stranded on a desert island, and the possibility of one of them — maybe a nurse and mother of two with a sweet smile, a steel spine and a mortgage — will win a million bucks.

And it'll probably still be something resembling news.