It seems to have become survival of the grueling

September 15, 2005|By Chuck Barney | Chuck Barney,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

How do you keep Survivor fresh and viewer-friendly in its 11th go-around? Start off by making it more grueling.

"This is our toughest one yet," insisted the show's intrepid host Jeff Probst, who never has been one to soft-pedal the hype. "It's fair to say Palau was a vacation compared to this."

For Survivor: Guatemala: The Mayan Empire (8 p.m., WJZ, Channel 13), 16 new castaways - many of them in their early 20s - were deposited in the Central American rainforests, amid the ruins of an ancient civilization. While trying to outwit, outplay and outlast their competitors, they were forced to endure blazing heat, crocodile-infested waters, swarms of mosquitoes, and, of course, each other.

And it was brutal from the get-go, as tonight's opener has the contestants beginning their adventure with an 11-mile overnight hike through the jungle.

"It was a doozy," Probst said during a phone interview. "People were on their knees, on their backs, throwing up and having their eyes rolling back in their heads."

Cruel and unusual punishment? Perhaps, but the castaways - and the fans - just keep coming back for more. While many other reality shows have been voted off our TV screens in recent years, Survivor continues to be a Nielsen juggernaut and a cornerstone of CBS' formidable Thursday-night lineup. A big factor in that continuing success, says Probst, is the willingness by producers to bring new wrinkles to the formula.

This season, for example, the cast includes Gary Hogeboom, a former quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Fearing that he immediately would be voted off if competitors caught wind of his pro-sports past, Hogeboom, 47, gave himself a fake name and claimed to be a land developer.

"It was a lot of fun because we never had anyone on the show with such a lie to tell and tell it so well," Probst said.

In another twist, three of the contestants happen to have an identical twin. Also, two former Survivor castaways will come back in some capacity. Probst refused to reveal their names, but insisted they aren't those reality TV camera hogs, Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich.

This season's Survivor cast ranges in age from 21 (Brianna, a makeup artist from Washington and Morgan, a magician's assistant/waitress from Illinois) to 63 (Jim, a retired fire captain from Colorado). It also includes a police sergeant, a Kansas farmer, a zookeeper, a sports radio talk-show host, a hotel doorman and two Ivy League students. They and the others will be vying for a $1 million top prize.

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