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Will we survive?
[Times art: Branden Jeffords]

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2000


Producers afraid that the stories of regular folks - even those stranded on a rat-infested island, a la Survivor - may prove a yawn for 21st century TV audiences, goose the goings-on.

Even as she admits what she did, Colleen Haskell can't help giggling.

You might be tempted to dismiss her laughter as a typical 23-year-old's reaction to uncomfortable circumstances. But she wants you to know, despite loads of press material from CBS that might suggest otherwise, that it really wasn't that bad.

Eating rats, that is.

"We had nothing to eat and we were killing them all the time, and we started thinking: "What are we going to do with all these dead rats?' " says Haskell, a Miami Beach resident who spent 39 days with 15 companions "marooned" on a tropical island in March and April, courtesy of the CBS show, Survivor.

Plopped with few resources on the island of Pulau Tiga, off the coast of Borneo, Haskell and her compatriots found hunger a constant companion. After a while, the mounting rat corpses in their makeshift shelter began to look pretty good.

"I just kind of nibbled and tasted," says Haskell, acknowledging that, yes, rat does taste a little like chicken. "You kinda grab a leg and whatever."

However nonchalant she acts now, Haskell and her friends are about to become very big news.

As the latest addition to a reality TV genre that includes Fox's infamous Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire and MTV's The Real World, CBS's Survivor may emerge as the biggest event of the summer TV season.

The premise is simple: 16 people are taken to Pulau Tiga and split into two "tribes." With skimpy rations and a few tools, they must create their own shelter, find their own food and participate in "challenges" aimed at testing their teamwork and survival abilities.

photo
[CBS photos]
Pulau Tiga, a tropical island in the South China Sea, is the location for Survivor.

Once every three days, a tribal council is called and one player is voted off the island. When two are left, the last seven people eliminated from the contest return to pick the winner, who is given $1-million (losers get consolation prizes ranging from $2,500 to $100,000).

Of course, TV cameras are present. Twenty-four hours a day.

"The only rules are, no physical violence and no colluding to split the million dollars," says executive producer Mark Burnett, a former member of the British Army Parachute Regiment who also produces the Eco-Challenge competitions for the Discovery Channel.

After a few minutes' conversation, it's easy to see how this engaging Brit got CBS to bankroll the American version of a show originally developed in Sweden as Expedition Robinson.

Energetic and engaging, Burnett comes across as a good-natured adventurer as he explains why stranding 16 people on an island to create TV entertainment couldn't possibly be exploitative.

"It's like high school cubed," he says, noting the biggest challenge came not from the heat, the lack of food or the lack of a decent bed, but from the social dynamics. "It's really hard and people are losing 30 pounds in weight and there's tears . . . but that's what these people signed up for."

Still, two of the 20th century's starkest literary cautionary tales warn against the evils of such circumstances.

photo
From back to front, Gervase, 30, Jenna, 22, and Colleen, 23, documented by ever-present cameras, eat a meal of rice.
William Golding's Lord of the Flies outlines how isolation and deprivation pulls out the darkest human emotions among a tribe of island castaways. And in George Orwell's 1984, the loss of privacy to constant electronic snooping becomes the death of freedom.

What does it say about 21st century America that such subjects are now the stuff of TV entertainment?

"This is clearly no Lord of the Flies," Burnett says, ever so diplomatically. "This is not real survivalism . . . If someone would have been hurt or wanted out, they would have been off the island in a second.

"The most boring show I can think of would be 16 survivalists on an island," the producer adds, noting that he and the network sifted through some 6,000 applications to find the right 16 people for their televised social experiment.

"The question was: "How would they treat the (deprivations)?' It's about people overcoming things and how they're changed by the experience," he says.

Even Haskell admits Survivor will likely pave the way for some unsavory television in the future.

"Of course, it will spiral out of control," says the Maryland native, who was talked into accepting her spot on the show by a friend. "I'm worried it's going to take a wrong turn and people will abuse it and we're going to see things we don't want to see on TV. I'm just glad I was on the first shift of it, to take advantage of all the great things that will come my way."

Despite her early misgivings, Haskell, the only Floridian to make the trip, assured reporters last week she felt her time on the island was well spent.

"How often do you get asked to go to Malaysia and try to win $1-million?" added Haskell, who, like everyone else involved with the Survivor production, has signed documents pledging not to reveal who won the contest, upon pain of losing any prize money and more. "Who am I to say no?"

Reality with a twist

You might not realize it, but reality TV has been with us for a while.

To trace its origins, reach back to 1973 and a film called An American Family. This PBS documentary introduced the Louds -- a suburban clan that allowed cameras to spend months filming their every move, eventually documenting one son's emerging homosexuality and the divorce of parents Bill and Pat Loud.

These days, reality TV wears many faces.

On Fox's Cops series, cameras follow police as they arrest mostly lower-class perpetrators. On series such as World's Most Dangerous Storms and World's Most Dangerous Videos, we're treated to collections of horrible accidents and calamities caught on tape.

Reality TV even gives us the average, middle-class white guy sitting across from Regis Philbin, struggling to answer a question worth several times his yearly salary on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Average people in extraordinary circumstances. Who could resist that kind of television?

But reality TV has morphed over time. In the past, such programming often involved recording events that might have happened anyway. But today's TV programmers create their own events -- calibrated to bring maximum tension to the "average" subjects they showcase.

In America, such gimmickry emerged on MTV's Real World, in which a group of young strangers spend time living in a house crammed with cameras.

Big Brother, due to arrive on CBS in July, raises the stakes even higher -- placing 10 people in a house for three months with no outside contact and few supplies. With a meager budget for groceries, the group grows much of its own food and lives under constant surveillance, their actions broadcast on TV and over the Internet.

Every two weeks, the group selects two candidates for expulsion from the house; the audience votes through the Internet to pick who is actually ejected.

When three people are left, Internet votes determine the winner, who receives $500,000, like the old thumbs up/thumbs down votes Roman citizens gave gladiators in their coliseum conflicts.

Such shows are already a phenomenon overseas, where Expedition: Robinson drew more than 50 percent of the available audience when it aired in Sweden, according to CBS officials. England has its version, Castaway 2000; Big Brother currently airs in Germany (where the government nearly banned it), Britain and the Netherlands.

Ask Burnett why such shows are so popular overseas, and you get a direct answer.

"You ever see an ER come out of Europe?" he asks. "Never will . . . because they can't afford it. They have to do more than just hire a top writer and a big star to make a TV series. People who don't have money, have to be really clever."

Survivor and Big Brother -- which will air an eye-popping 90 episodes from July through to September, five days a week -- are expected to make money in America for the same reason: because they're cheap.

"Big Brother (costs) about one-third the license fee of a single sitcom," says CBS Television president Les Moonves. "Survivor . . . we've already sold it to eight sponsors. No matter what the ratings are, we still make a profit."

No wonder so many other networks have stumbled on this particular bandwagon.

ABC this week relaunches Making the Band, a Real World-style show about the making of a teen pop boy band that drew lukewarm ratings in its March debut. The network has already begun casting a series for the 2000-01 season following a group of journalists as they assemble a start-up Internet magazine.

Fox is developing American High, which follows the graduating class of a high school through its senior year. Even PBS is getting into the act June 12 with The 1900 House, a four-part documentary about a British family that lived for three months in a home outfitted only with technology available at the dawn of the 20th century.

"It has the entertainment value of these reality shows, but you get the educational value of really understanding what life was like back then," says executive producer Beth Hoppe. "You learn things about that life you never would get from a history book."

"We didn't know what we were letting ourselves in for," adds Paul Bowler, 40, a member of England's Royal Marines who took his wife and four children to a specially outfitted Victorian house and wore period-specific clothes for 1900 House's tough three-month production. "We weren't there to shock or to get ratings. We just wanted to show people . . . "Look how lucky we are (these days).' "

Although it's hard to predict anyone's reaction to the stresses these shows create, experts agree that such adversity can help participants discover deeper truths about themselves.

"The true nature of the individual will emerge, over the course of several days of stress or duress," says Mitch Utterback, a Green Beret and survival training expert who has competed in three of Burnett's Eco-Challenge races. "If you've done a good job in the civilized world of maintaining a facade of politeness, but deep down you're a rat bastard, that rat bastard will come out."

With such scenarios comes risk. The first man to be eliminated from Expedition: Robinson in 1997 killed himself (his widow, blaming the show, has filed a lawsuit).

And Fox wound up dumping $6-million worth of reality TV programming following embarrassing revelations about the couple at the heart of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire.

For those participating in such televised events, the impact can come in two waves: from enduring the event itself and then seeing the show broadcast to the world.

That's what happened to the Bowler family. After The 1900 House aired in Britain, this unassuming middle class clan found their newfound celebrity more vexing than three months without vacuum cleaners and TV sets.

"Sometimes, it feels like we're owned by (everyone) else . . . they know you, and yet I've never met these people before in my life," Bowler says, laughing.

Strange as it was for the Bowlers, they weren't shown on national television eating rats and going for weeks without a bath. But Burnett and Moonves say that all the Survivor participants handled the game's outcome well.

(Both men shrugged off questions about Survivor participant Richard Hatch, recently arrested for child abuse after forcing his son to go on a 4:30 a.m. jog and then roughing him up when he stopped).

"Am I ready for (the impact of the show airing)? No," says Haskell, laughing nervously. "But my parents are worse . . . They said, "This isn't in the parent handbook.' They're a wreck."

Reality turns a tidy profit

Acutely aware of how Survivor's success largely depends on morbid curiosity, CBS officials are downright paranoid about revealing details of the shows before they air.

That places Haskell in a unique position during a telephone interview: stuck trying to publicize a show she can't talk much about.

A few details slip. The island was infested with rats, who enjoyed nibbling on participants' feet and hands; the rats drew snakes, some of which were poisonous; her worst experience was swimming through a thick, boglike lagoon to reach her camp.

But Haskell offers no information on whether romance blossomed between castaways (Burnett says it did) and no dirt on who fought with whom. CBS suits won't even let her talk about the time Burnett plopped an unlabeled can in front of his hungry charges, which they promptly opened and ate -- even after discovering it was dog food.

"Mark is sick . . . the man is sick in the brain," Haskell says, recalling the various "challenges" Burnett devised -- physical contests by which contestants could win luxury items such as a chocolate bar or three days' immunity from ejection.

"I was worried I wouldn't make any friends -- how sad is that?" she adds, of her first few days on the island. "And at first, you're a little bit modest, trying to hide behind the one tree on the beach when you're changing clothes. After that, you're gonna do what you have to do."

What the networks will do, it seems, is focus on bringing this new and potentially profitable form of TV to the mainstream. In the process, they'll fulfill the cynical predictions of media-fed excess outlined in movies from Network to The Truman Show.

What will this mean for participants such as Haskell? Will they get to walk away from such productions with their dignity and self-respect intact? And how far will TV networks go in exploiting the pain of average people for ratings and profits?

Stay tuned.

At a glance

Survivor airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WTSP-Ch. 10.

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