A Star Is Borneo

  • It's a tough call which is scarier: the red-in-tooth-and-claw depredations of a remote untamed wilderness--or a pack of Americans out to win a pile of money and look good on TV. Next summer the question should be answered, however, by CBS's Survivor, a million-dollar jungle showdown that might better be called The Real World: Pulau Tiga.

    The premise: 16 Americans are dropped on a rain-forest island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, alone except for monitor lizards, poisonous sea krait snakes, food-thieving macaque monkeys and 10 camera crews videotaping their every forage. For about six weeks, with as few supplies as if they'd fled a shipwreck, they must scrabble for food, water and shelter by cooperating. Up to a point, that is. Every three days, the group must also vote by secret ballot to expel one or two members--once for each of 13 episodes--until only two remain. The expelled members then decide which of the pair wins a $1 million prize.

    It's this William Golding-esque twist that most intrigues producer Mark Burnett, who characterizes the program as "a human experiment." In real life, "you don't always tell people around you whether you like them or not," Burnett says. "By the time every island council comes, there's going to be a very clear statement by each person about whom he or she really doesn't like." The rejects--the Piggies in this reality-TV Lord of the Flies--won't know why they were dumped until the show airs, but Survivor's camera crews will continually interview members about the group dynamics and conflicts, much as MTV's voyeuristic epics Real World and Road Rules do. ("Ian just never, like, respected my personal needs. He refused to suck the venom out of my leg.") To boost the conflict, producers will also include mini-competitions (raft building, nature quizzes) for creature comforts like pillows and soft drinks. And they'll seek contestants of all ages (21 and over), regions of the country and walks of life (an application is available at ).

    Burnett is known for producing Discovery's grueling wilderness-race show Eco-Challenge (scheduled to move to USA network next year), but he says that while contestants will need to be in good health, Survivor will emphasize mental toughness: a middle-aged woman, he says, could just as likely win as a 25-year-old commando. Indeed, the psychological rigors of twoscore days in the rain forest--and the potential humiliation of being booted by 15 comrades on national TV--are as worrisome as the jungle fauna. The Swedish show Expedition Robinson, from which Survivor is adapted, ran into controversy when a participant--the first in his group to be ejected--committed suicide just after returning home, although it was not certain that the show was a factor. For Survivor, both medical and psychological support staff will be on call at a nearby base.

    Survivor is only one show seeking to emulate the success of another oddball little imported game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which ABC turned into the surprise smash of last summer (and will bring back for November sweeps); other networks have scrambled to plan updates of classic game shows like 21 and The $64,000 Question. But Survivor's sociological, pseudo-Machiavellian aspect makes it the antithesis of traditional quiz shows, which, with their 1950s-'60s, best-and-brightest vision, place individuals outside a social context and reward them for pure skill. On Jeopardy!, that SAT of game shows, what counts is what you know. On Survivor, it's as much who you know, and what they think of you.

    Which may make it the definitive competition for the era of the corporate retreat and the project team. Survivor is designed to reward talents that pay off not in classrooms but in boardrooms, break rooms and locker rooms: succeeding without alienating, impressing without threatening. After the early rounds, after all, looking like a potential winner could be as big a liability as obnoxiousness. "The person who wins the million dollars should be a real winner going forward in his or her life," says Burnett. "Who could survive 13 votes if he or she wasn't a pretty capable and likable person?" The rest leave empty-handed. But they should be able to keep their food safe from macaques for the rest of their lives.