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A 'snake' survives: CBS castaways pick a surprise winner

Thursday, August 24, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Snakes prosper. Richard Hatch, a gay 39-year-old corporate trainer from Newport, R.I., who irked fellow castaways by bounding around the island of Pulau Tiga in the buff, outlasted, outwitted and outplayed his "Survivor" peers, winning the game show's $1 million jackpot.

 
  Guests at Mary Warwick's "Survivor" party in Murrysville react to the ending of the show. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

In a gripping final half-hour filled with personal recriminations and hurt feelings rising to the surface and the last two standing called a "rat" and a "snake," the final vote came down to wacky Ivy Leaguer Greg Buis' "pick a number" scheme. Rich picked closest and got Greg's vote, giving Rich a one vote advantage over river guide Kelly Wiglesworth. She ended up with $100,000.

After 39 days -- stretched to 13 weeks over the summer on CBS -- the castaways were whittled from 16 to two, with retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch seeming the most likely winner based on the show's crafty editing. In a Newsweek poll, viewers had picked Rich (by 62 percent) as the cast member they least wanted to win.

In a CBS poll conducted immediately following the broadcast, only 11 percent said the right person won. CBS said 45 percent said Rudy should have won, 42 percent Kelly, 11 percent Rich and 2 percent preferred trucker Sue Hawk. In the poll, 61 percent said Rich played fair, but 51 percent said they would not do what he did to win.

Hatch, who after returning from the island last spring was arrested for making his son exercise in the wee hours of the morning, told host Bryant Gumbel at a televised town hall meeting following the last episode that his fan mail wasn't as hateful as the press might have led viewers to believe. (Gumbel never asked Rich about his legal troubles).

For a program originally intended as a one-hour finale -- expanded to two hours only after the show became a hit -- the last "Survivor" got off to an exciting start. As the two hours began, the final four contestants had to answer questions about their banished compatriots.

 
   
'Survivor' spawns back-stabbing fever

 
 

In this competition, called an immunity challenge, the self-absorbed Rich didn't have a chance. Kelly got immunity, which meant she couldn't be banished when the tribal council -- the remaining four castaways -- next met.

Rudy had pledged allegiance to Rich early during the show and voted to boot Sue. Kelly knew Rudy wouldn't change his vote, so, shaking her head, switched her vote to Sue, sending the trucker on the road again.

"This was easier for me than driving a truck through Chicago every day of the week," Sue said afterward.

In the next immunity challenge, Kelly, Rich and Rudy were asked to keep one hand on the immunity idol with the last able to maintain contact winning immunity. After about 90 minutes, conniving Rich gave up.

"This game is about a lot of different things and one of those things is mental strategy," he said.

Some time later, in a moment of absentmindedness, Rudy let go of the idol and Kelly got immunity. Rich's strategy worked: Only Kelly's vote at tribal council mattered and Kelly knew she stood a better chance at the final tribal council against Rich than the popular Rudy.

To pick the winner, banished "Survivor" cast members got to question the final two. Armchair critics will analyze their answers -- how Kelly avoided sucking up when asked who she'd like to see in her and Rich's place, how Rich responded when he was challenged on his observation skills.

But the real fireworks came from Sue, who was hurt by what she perceived as Kelly's betrayal. Though Sue called Rich "a very openly, arrogant, pompous human being," she told Kelly, "if you were laying there dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water."

Sue called Kelly a rat and Rich a snake and argued the jury should vote the way mother nature intended, "for the snake to eat the rat."

In the end, that's exactly what happened.

The castaways accounted for 16 of the show's stars and the tropical island locale in the South China Seas was the 17th character, but the editing of "Survivor" created a pop culture phenomenon. The editors, working with executive producer Mark Burnett, made the show more than just a melding of MTV's "The Real World" and game shows. Not only could "Survivor" be as funny as a sitcom but it was also as slippery as a well-plotted prime-time drama.

When Rudy, who showed he wasn't fond of "queers," said Richard was an OK guy despite his homosexuality, the editors brilliantly cut to a shot of Rudy lathering up Richard's back with sunscreen.

On the town hall meeting show that aired immediately after the final episode, Gumbel asked Rudy if his perception of gays had changed.

"Nah," Rudy replied.

Rich defended Rudy, calling him "gentle and honest and amazing ... the words you hear often sound un-PC, but that's not what's in his heart."

"Survivor" premiered May 31, attracting a little more than 15 million viewers. Pretty good for a summer series, but not enough to beat a hastily-scheduled special edition of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." That changed the next week when "Survivor" was watched by 18 million viewers, beating "Millionaire" and sending "Millionaire" host Regis Philbin and his game show limping away in retreat. "Voted off the island" replaced "Is that your final answer?" as the catch phrase of the moment.

In recent weeks more than 30 million have tuned to "Survivor," and last night's audience was expected to be even bigger, leading to advertising rates of $600,000 for a 30-second spot. It's not as muchas NBC got the final "Seinfeld" but it's not bad for a summer series.

The series has been a boon to CBS, drawing younger viewers who usually stay away in droves.

It's given the old gray network "new circulation" that executives hope will mean a greater number of younger viewers watching when CBS's new fall series begin airing in October.

If they don't, CBS has a backup plan: "Survivor: The Australian Outback" premieres Jan. 28 following the "Super Bowl."

Filming on the sequel begins in Australia in October with a whole new set of Americans ready to form alliances, double cross one another and ultimately win $1 million.


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.



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