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Thursday, September 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bubble of secrecy protects reality-show endings

By Cary Darling
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Reality contestants like the cast of "Survivor: Vanuatu," sign confidentiality agreements so the show's outcome won't be revealed early.
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When it comes to keeping mum, the CIA and FBI could take some pointers from a few other three-letter organizations: CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox.

With the rapid rise of reality TV — specifically those shows in which a humiliated and emotionally battered contestant is eliminated and sent home in shame every week — the networks have a vested interest in keeping a secret of who gets the boot.

No suspense, no show, no ad revenue. Loose lips sink viewership.

But it's anywhere from several weeks to months between taping and airing. So the networks do what they must — from making the contestants and crew members sign contracts owing their financial souls if they blab, to convincing local governments to block off air space around remote filming locations — to ensure that there are no leaks on the reality-TV cruise to ratings success.

Even just talking ABOUT the process of secrecy is off-limits for some; representatives from such shows as "The Bachelor" and "The Apprentice" decided that discretion is the better part of TV valor and elected not to answer questions regarding their practices.

The networks' ploys seem to be working. So far, despite the increasing numbers of programs and contestants, there've been no major gaffes. But with a new edition of "The Apprentice" under way on NBC, Mark Cuban's "The Benefactor" on ABC and a new season of "Survivor" ramping up tonight on CBS, the networks have to pray that their luck holds and contestants stay quiet.

"When you've got a $5 million fine over your head, it's silly that you would talk," says Joe Borgenicht, co-author of the just-released "The Reality TV Handbook," a guide to how to survive on a reality show, from forming alliances to eating sheep eyeballs.

But Colleen Sullivan, a vice president of publicity at CBS who spent several weeks with the cast and crew of the latest edition of "Survivor" on the Pacific island of Vanuatu, says there's more to it than simply threatening contestants with things like having to forfeit their winnings, pay a steep fine and live on mac-and-cheese for the rest of their miserable, little lives.

"Everybody signs confidentiality agreements," says Sullivan, who notes that the penalty for breaking a "Survivor" contract is $5 million, "but at the end of the day, it's an agreement of everybody involved beyond the contestants. There's a crew of 300-plus people who've done a lot of hard work, and there's a certain pride that these secrets remain secret."
But "Survivor" producers count on a little more than pride. To keep their filming spot — always a remote, foreign location — hidden from prying paparazzi eyes, they employ a security team and utilize areas of a country that are for their shooting purposes only.

"If we can close airspace, we will, if [the local government] allows us to," Sullivan says. "We keep our production bubble."

Then those who are kicked off "Survivor" don't go home right away. Producers keep them away from civilization. Rhode Island's Jeanne Hebert, who got exiled from "Survivor: The Amazon" after 15 days of the 39-day shoot, told the Providence Journal that she and the other contestants not needed for the final "tribal council" went off on a three-week South American vacation at CBS' expense.

At Showtime's "The American Candidate," the winner of which will run for the U.S. presidency, contestants are billeted in a hotel with no cellphone or computer, according to USA Today. The paper also reports that contestants are taking seven weeks off work in exchange for a $500-a-week stipend and the chance to win $200,000.

But the networks can't keep muzzles on their charges forever. At some point, usually before the shows hit the air, they have to return to their jobs, families and friends. That would seem to be the hardest part, keeping the fact that you're now a millionaire from mom or that obnoxious guy at the gym bragging about his new 7-series Beemer.

Not so, says Blake Mycoskie, who (along with his sister Paige) finished third in the second season of CBS' "The Amazing Race" two years ago. The pair won $25,000.

"It's much harder on those who go on reality shows without a partner," Mycoskie says. "We could talk about it together. On 'Survivor,' you can't talk about it with anyone. The dynamic that no one has picked up on is that, during that time period, because you can't talk to your parents or anyone else, you end up becoming closer to others on the show, through instant messaging or e-mail."

Mycoskie's dad, Michael, says the hardest part for him was the five weeks Blake and Paige were gone for filming. "When they came back, we were relieved. Then it became kind of a game. We would try to bait them. We would ask them trick questions: 'You've got a pretty good tan. Where might that have been?"'

Blake says neither he nor Paige ever came close to spilling the truth and neither did Colby Donaldson, the Dallas custom auto designer who came in second on the Australian season of "Survivor" three years ago. His disappearance, and subsequent reticence, didn't strike his family as odd at all.

"It's not off the charts that I would take off six or seven weeks to go out on adventure. I've always been an independent soul," he explains. "They just said, 'Colby's off on an adventure.' They didn't press me, and I knew it would be a neat surprise for them."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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