New survivors carry invisible baggage

How much will knowing the game affect how 'Survivor: The Australian Outback' is played -- and viewed?

Television

January 28, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

How big a television event is tonight's premiere of "Survivor: The Australian Outback" on CBS?

Not as big as the Super Bowl, but closer to it than any entertainment program has ever been. Depending on how competitive the game is, together the two blockbusters could make for the largest audience for a Super Bowl Sunday in television history.

"This year, ironically enough, I think probably for the first time in history, we've got a show following the Super Bowl that actually has a chance of helping the Super Bowl rating, which has never happened before," says Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports.

"Normally, the Super Bowl is used as a vehicle to launch a new show. If the game unfortunately turns out to be a blowout, I know there will be people sticking around that probably wouldn't have stuck around before just to watch the season premiere of 'Survivor,' which I think is good for 'Survivor' and great for the Super Bowl," he explains.

Or, as McManus' boss, CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves puts it: "If it's a blowout, we may eliminate the fourth quarter and go right to 'Survivor.' "

He's only kidding, sports fans.

Sexier Survivors

If Moonves seems cocky about "Survivor 2," can you blame him? Since CBS announced the new cast two weeks ago, the publicity buildup for the reality show sequel has rivaled that of the Super Bowl.

Is there anyone in America who hasn't seen the cast pictures and noted that the 16 Survivors in this group seem younger, better-looking and downright buff in many cases compared to the first group?

Is there anyone who doesn't know that Survivor Kimmi Kappenberg, a 28-year-old bartender from Long Island, promises to get as naked as Richard Hatch, or that Jerri Manthey, a 30-year-old bartender from Los Angeles, spent much of her time during the filming in a bikini stretched out in the sun and that the cameras have an uncanny knack for finding her?

Funny how many female bartenders hell-bent on showing off their bodies made it to the final 16 out of the "49,000 and change" who applied, according to Mark Burnett, the creator and executive producer of "Survivor."

How about the names of the two tribes this time? Does anyone not know it's the Kucha vs. the Ogakor? You probably even know that "kucha" is the Aboriginal word for kangaroo, and that "ogakor" is Aboriginal for crocodile. And you simply haven't been paying attention if you missed this factoid: Nine of the 10 deadliest snakes in the world live in the Australian terrain that serves as the setting for "Survivor 2." It's all brought to you by the great CBS publicity machine.

Burnett acknowledges that the cast is younger and better-looking, but says it was just the luck of the draw.

"It just so happened that the compelling characters happened to, in some cases, have pretty faces. I think we are a lot smarter than just going for pretty faces, knowing that we have to carry 14 weeks of television," he said.

Who has the power?

Like Moonves, Burnett is nothing if not cocky. But there is one aspect of "Survivor 2" that he and CBS are clearly uncomfortable about, and have tried their best to avoid discussing. It involves what effect watching last summer's "Survivor" will have on how these 16 Survivors play the game and the ways in which we watch them. This is the aspect of the series that I think will be the most interesting to think about tonight as we watch this group scramble out of a cargo plane, grabbing what supplies they can in five minutes, as they set off on a five-mile trek to their campsites.

Jeff "The Tribe Has Spoken" Probst, the over-the-top host of the series, inadvertently led television critics to the topic during a press conference two weeks ago in Los Angeles when he said, "The interesting thing about this cast vs. the last cast to me was that, whereas the first group were virgins, everybody here came to play. You know, Richard Hatch would have been eaten alive by this group."

Nice sound bite, but it made some people in the audience wonder what effect watching the first series had on the second cast of players. For example, did members of this cast talk about members of the original cast during the filming? Did Kappenberg say, "I'm going to out-Hatch Hatch here in getting naked?"

And, if they did, what effect would that have on us in the audience in terms of our relationship to the screen? For "Survivor" to work as voyeurism, we have to feel as if we are spying them -- not that they are playing to the camera and manipulating their images for us. It's about power; whether we in the audience or those on the screen have it. Take the power connected with the voyeuristic gaze away from the viewer, and maybe you lose something crucial to the appeal of the series.

But Burnett was having none of it during follow-up questions and interviews.

In answer to the direct question of whether there is talk in "Survivor 2" of "Survivor 1," he said, "zero."

"Nothing at all? They didn't discuss it at all, or you didn't include it?" he was asked.

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