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How CBS managed to conceal ''Survivor'''s biggest surprise

A behind the scenes look at the summer’s biggest PR circus.

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Richard Hatch (Actor - Survivor)
Hatch: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Forget Pulau Tiga and the Australian outback. The next ”Survivor” series ought to be set in a really grueling, sometimes dangerous, and mystery-filled location: the CBS PR department. All summer long, the Eye?s marketing folks have had to hold a frenzied press corps at bay, while putting out media fires set by spoiler-obsessed Internet geeks, and trying to generate publicity for the series (which would ultimately become the summer’s No. 1 show) without letting its top-secret results leak out.

In mid-July, they even had to fend off a stalker: After a ”Survivor” press conference, an unidentified man hid behind bushes waiting for B.B., Gretchen, Joel, Ramona, and Sonja to emerge. When the castaways jumped in their limo, he gave chase. ”At one point, he was driving on the shoulder behind us,” says publicity director Colleen Sullivan, who ultimately gave him the slip with a decoy limo. ”I don’t know who he was. I’m not armed. I don’t know how to handle this.”

Who would know how to handle the most publicized television event in history? According to the TV industry newsletter The Myers Report, on the day of the final telecast alone, ”Survivor” generated 540 news stories. That’s more than the May 3, 1991, finale of ”Dallas” or the series enders for ”Seinfeld” and ”Cheers.” ”All summer we were trying to feed the media beast through photos, radio interviews, talk show and interview requests,” says senior VP of communications Chris Ender, who intercepted at least 100 calls a day.

Fighting them every step of the way were those Internet sites and radio stations hell-bent on revealing the million-dollar winner. People would scour stuff like an ”Access Hollywood” clip (featuring the merged Rattana tribe) and the show’s opening titles (Look! A bearded Rudy!) for clues. Entertainment Weekly inadvertently fed the frenzy by revealing who was on the island on Day 18, while Newsweek quoted Sean saying it was the best month of his life (he was kicked off on day 36).

Even a rejected contestant slipped an early spoiler to Outside magazine: After flying to Borneo on a fact-finding mission, the also-ran bumped into Joel at a hotel and figured out that he’d gotten the boot. ”Early on, we decided never to confirm or deny any speculation about the results,” says Ender. ”We also allowed the press to run misinformation. It turned out to be the best thing we ever did.” Ender did, however, save what he calls a ”major” publication from writing that Joel was the winner early on. ”I told (the writer), Dude, you’re gonna get fired.” (The story never ran.)

Meanwhile, Survivorsucks. com — the Internet site CBS loved to hate because it provided invaluable publicity for the show while attempting to ruin it — posted an e-mail speculating that Richard might be the winner because he’d bought a house in a very posh section of Middletown, R.I. ”I called (Rich) and said, What did we talk about? No big purchases!” recalls Ender. ”He laughed and said he bought the house three years ago so his son could go to school in the same district with his biological brother.”

Then MSNBC.com pointed out that Ramona had described Gretchen as a true ”survivor” during her CBS ”Early Show” appearance, thus spawning pandemonium among the mainstream press and prompting another inaccurate story: that CBS was prepared to sue Ramona for letting the rat out of the hat. Then there was the gutsy voice analyst who — the day before the finale — told the ”Early Show”’s Bryant Gumbel that Rudy was the victor ”beyond a shadow of a doubt.” ”I felt bad for him,” recalls Sullivan. ”I watched it, knowing it was wrong. Somebody has to stop these people! But, it’s like, if you want to put yourself on the line like that…”

Ironically, no one ever called CBS believing that Richard was the winner — but the corporate trainer was the focus of controversy. ”I’ll never forget the day I’m in my car on the way to my office, checking my voice mail, and I get a message from a Newport, R.I., paper calling for comment that Richard Hatch has been arrested on a child abuse charge,” says Ender. ”I remember my heart fell to my ankles.” (The charge was dropped, and Rich is now suing authorities.)

By the time a Fox affiliate in North Carolina was preparing a report on Kelly’s credit card charging spree, ”our skin was so coarse with all the Survivor scandal stories that we barely noticed it,” he says. But the pressure never let up. One week before the finale, two of the castaways — when asked what they thought of the winner — accidentally gave away Hatch’s gender during radio and TV interviews. ”That’s why we went to a media blackout,” says Ender.

Although Ender and Co. are relieved that they no longer have to protect the summer’s best-kept secret, a larger PR monster lurks around the corner — ”Survivor: The Australian Outback,” which debuts Jan. 28. What’s the new game plan? First off, fewer reporters will be allowed to visit the set, and those who do get the green light will only be there during the first two weeks of production.

Plus, banished castaways may have to stick around until the show’s completion (B.B.’s early homecoming tipped off one reporter that he was among the first to be kicked off). And lastly, no single media outlet will land an exclusive with the final survivor (USA Today arranged its one-on-one with the winner before the show debuted). One thing that probably won’t change? The all-consuming media madness. ”Requests are coming from outlets that are now kicking themselves for not being more aggressive,” says publicity director Michelle Hooper. ”No one wants to miss out on the ‘Survivor’ gravy train.”

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