Victorious Secret: How 'Survivor' Stayed Mum About The Winner
A post-finale look at how CBS managed to keep the show's winner from the press
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 number one show) without letting the show’s top-secret results slip out. In mid-July, they even had to fend off a stalker: After a Survivor press conference, one unidentified man hid behind bushes waiting for BB, 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 communications Chris Ender, who intercepted at least 100 calls a day. ”It was an engine that needed constant fuel.”
Fighting them every step of the way were those Internet sites and radio stations hellbent 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 factfinding mission, the also-ran ran 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 email 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.”