Cover Story

Well, Isle Be!

Summer TV mysteries explained -- From Kathie Lee's successor to how real ''Survivor'' is, we have the answers

Surely I didn't go to entertainment journalism school for this! The CBS television network is about to maroon me on Palau Tiga, a South Seas island off the coast of Borneo, 7,977 miles from my living room couch in Los Angeles. In the sweltering equatorial jungles that await me, I will confront 300-pound pythons, mud-spewing volcanoes, slobbering monitor lizards, and trillions of parasitic worms vying for a chance to vacation inside my big American intestines. Even worse: Toilet paper, I've been told, is at a premium.

It's week 3 of taping CBS' Real World-meets-Robinson Crusoe game show (which premiered Wednesday, May 31, and airs weekly this summer), and for two days and one very long night, I will join whoever remains of the 16 original castaways who've been competing for fame, riches, and really bad BO. By now you've heard the premise: Stranded amid these emerald waters with little more than the clothes on their backs, the contestants — a cross section of regular folks (young, old, black, white, good-natured, ultra-annoying) — are trying to withstand both the elements and their island-mates, who hold a secret vote (dubbed the Tribal Council) every three days to decide who should next be banished from this malaria-friendly paradise. The sole survivor crawls away with the $1 million grand prize, and will no doubt help CBS create an oasis in the desert that is TV's summer rerun season.

But as the boat slams its way toward shore and I get my first glimpse of the haggard Survivors on the beach, a rush of questions fills my head. Has TV's obsession with voyeurism finally gone too far? What does it really take to survive? And of course, what if Darva Conger shows up? I decide to make it my mission to unlock the mysteries of Palau Tiga and to learn everything I can about this ragtag band, who've chosen to eat rats for a month rather than make their million the old-fashioned way: by answering a few softball questions from Reege. Here's what I turned up:

How hard was it to become a contestant?
Let's put it this way: Becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice would have been easier. More than 6,000 people applied via written applications and wacky videotapes (like the one in which a woman fried up a bikini made of breakfast meat). CBS staffers then met with 800 wannabes around the country. At in-person auditions held last January in L.A., for example, Survivor hopefuls were forced to cozy up to tarantulas and snakes and were subjected to probing 20-minute interviews (have you ever engaged in a threesome? When was the last time you lied? Do you believe in Jesus Christ?). The field was narrowed to 48 finalists, and after more interviews, 16 were chosen. They underwent extensive background checks, a written psychological evaluation, and medical testing. ''And this was way before the Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? [scandal],'' says exec producer Mark Burnett. Adds psychologist Gene Ondrusek, who screened the contestants, ''We were looking for people who wouldn't break down, give up, or freak out.''

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