New York The end is nigh. Again. Sort of.
Just as last August we saw slithery Richard Hatch become the first "Survivor" champ, soon we will see who aced "Survivor: The Australian Outback," a struggle for one-upmanship Down Under that's been watched, analyzed and talked about for weeks.
Is the million-dollar winner Tina, the twangy, down-home wife and mom from Tennessee? Colby, the Texas hunk with the movie-star grin? Keith, the fussy chef from Michigan who can't cook rice?
On CBS' two-hour finale at 7 p.m. Thursday, we will learn along with the finalists the tribal jury's ruling, kept under lock and key since the contest was taped last fall during 42 days on the banks of Queensland's Herbert River.
"Survivor" creator Mark Burnett insists the verdict, to be revealed on live TV, will be news even to him. "I personally carried the sealed container (with the untallied votes) to CBS and put it in their vault."
The audience should be huge (the original "Survivor's" finale was seen by nearly 52 million viewers). Then it will be time for "Survivor II" to go.
But this isn't really goodbye. The fun and games of reality TV will go on, particularly as the networks turn to this strike-proof alternative in the face of contract disputes with writers and actors who, very soon, may vote themselves off the job. (TV's writers union could go on strike as early as this week, while actors could walk out as soon as July.)
With its passing, "Survivor II" is prologue to a future of clones and wannabes. And, of course, sequels: This fall, look for "Survivor III."
"There clearly will be a lot more reality," said CBS president Leslie Moonves, "whether there's a strike or not."
In other words, the TV-watching tribe has spoken. "Survivor II," capturing on average 28.7 million viewers since its Super Bowl Sunday premiere, not only won huge ratings but also let some air out of NBC's formerly puncture-proof domain.
"When CBS announced it would be scheduled against NBC's Thursday night lineup, people said this would be the death knell of 'Survivor,"' recalled analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner at TN Media Inc. "That was a grave miscalculation."
Not only did "Survivor" dominate its time slot, it did so despite NBC's kookie counterstrikes like stretching the hit sitcom "Friends" by 10 minutes and rounding out the hour with "Friends" outtakes or "Saturday Night Live" sketches.
Looking back, Burnett sighs with relief. "It could have been so easy for 'Survivor' to be a one-shot summer wonder, then come up short in the regular season. When I heard from Leslie, 'We're gonna go up against "Friends,"' I was scared."
Moonves, who also confesses to some early butterflies, now hails "Survivor" as "one of the most significant television shows in the history of this network, especially since it enabled us to win Thursday night for the first time in 17 years."
Dr. Karen Chapman was among the viewers for whom "Survivor" became Must-See TV. She hasn't missed an episode.
"I can't believe these people are surviving in this harsh environment," said Chapman, and she doesn't mean Thursday night.
As director of health services for Florida's Okaloosa County, she can't help making a professional assessment: "They're demoralized, and they have deteriorated physically. Any time they eat real food, they get sick.
"I just can't get over what someone will do for a million dollars!"
But to win a little money and better yet score TV face-time, people will do all sorts of things.
Just since "Survivor II" arrived, globe-trotters on ABC's "The Mole" had to flush out a traitor in their midst. Hardbodies on Fox's "Temptation Island" flirted with infidelity. Suitors are literally strung along on UPN's "Chains of Love." Recruits are put through hell on Fox's "Boot Camp."
But when their show, or their participation in it, comes to an end, these players don't always go away.
After Thursday, a new class of "Survivor" grads will enter the swelling labor pool of reality-show alumni trying to prolong their celebrity.
Item: Sexy, scheming Jerri Manthey, bounced as a "Survivor" hopeful weeks ago, bounces back on "The Young and the Restless." For her May 28 appearance on the popular CBS soap, the would-be actress is cast in the role she was born to play: Jerri Manthey.
Item: "Survivor I" finalist Kelly Wiglesorth has landed a series of her own as host of E! Entertainment's weekly "Celebrity Adventures," set to premiere in September. "Not bad for someone who didn't have a passport a year ago," said the former rafting guide.
Phoning from Los Angeles to plug "Survivor: The E! True Hollywood Story" (8 p.m. Wednesday), Wiglesworth spoke cordially of the "Outback" team. But she noted that when the 16 original castaways encamped on remote Pulau Tiga in March 2000, they had no idea what they were in for.
"We didn't know what the show was going to be or that anybody would watch it," Wiglesworth said. "But this crew knew that everybody was gonna be watching 'em. They played it accordingly."
Even so, their performances have seemed less theatrical than the original cast's operatic style. While the Class of "II" had more eye appeal, arguably no one from its ranks matched larger-than-life characters like Hatch, a corporate trainer, truck driver Susan Hawk or military man Rudy Boesch.
For one thing, the "Outback" bunch was regularly upstaged by natural plagues: rain, wildfires, the persistent lack of food. Even in competition with one another, these players formed their main alliance against a common foe: the hostile environment. "Survivor II" became less knife-in-the-back than its predecessor, and more tug-at-the-heartstrings.
"My hair is falling out! It's malnutrition," said Elisabeth last week, just before the cutie-pie footwear designer got the heave-ho from her sorrowful tribe.
"'Survivor' isn't just about who gets voted off anymore," Mark Burnett said. "It's about compelling storytelling. I think we made good dramatic TV."
It should leave viewers hungry for more.