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November 30, 2000

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MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

Have Footage, Will Travel

Malaysia hopes a back-to-nature contest on U.S. television will bring more visitors


If survival docu-dramas are the big thing in television at the moment, Malaysia, it seems, is the hot location. Just as a Swiss crew was wrapping up eight weeks' filming on a desert isle off Johor state early this month, a U.S. team was starting work in another part of the country. The Americans' chosen island: tiny Pulau Tiga, 48 kilometers southwest of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state.

The two crews are producing remarkably similar programs. Both are based on the same concept: Select a group of people, throw them together in a remote spot and track them round the clock over a month or two to see how they cope with life in the wilds - and with each other. The experience focuses on survival on several levels. While individuals have to team up to find food and build shelters, they are also trying to eliminate each other. Every three days, for example, the American group will vote to "banish" one person from their midst until a sole contestant remains. Even as they establish "a new island society," the volunteers will pit their wits against each other to win small luxuries and to get a chance to go home with the ultimate cash prize.

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The winner is well rewarded. Expedition Robinson, the Swiss series which begins screening its second season this month, presents the sole remaining contestant with $65,000. Survivor, a production of CBS network in the U.S., is a late-comer to the game, but offers a more tempting $1 million. (The other competitors receive a daily "acting fee," so the longer they survive the more they earn.)

With its bigger budget and larger potential audience, CBS inevitably attracts greater attention. More than 6,000 people applied to be one of the eight men and eight women "marooned" on Pulau Tiga. To give hopefuls an idea of the neighbors they might encounter, the TV company turned to a Hollywood supply firm. Among the rental items: a two-meter-long snake, an orangutan and some lizards and tarantulas. (The island is home to such creatures as pythons, macaques and fruit bats.) While the castaways need to be mentally and physically fit, wilderness experience isn't a must. Still, as the organizers point out, it "couldn't hurt to have those skills.''

It'll be a motley group of Americans feeling their way around the Malaysian rainforest; the producers have aimed for diversity in ages, personalities and occupations. There is just one restriction: no one standing for public office. Selected participants are further required to sign an agreement promising not to campaign for a least a year after appearing on Survivor.

The show's executive producer, Mark Burnett, had scoured the world before settling on Pulau Tiga. The largest of three islands in the Pulau Tiga National Park, it features "mud volcanoes." Rest easy, though. These are not the lava-spewing kind, but vents from which the earth emits small amounts of gas and mud. The site was chosen for two reasons, Burnett says. First, the location can provide a Lost World environment, "but minus the poisonous snakes, crocodiles or tigers." Second: accommodating bureaucrats. Both the national and state governments "understand television and films," says Burnett.

Malaysia has been putting out the welcome mat to film studios. Incentives vary with the project, but the authorities are ready to help where they can, says Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, the minister for culture, arts and tourism. "Wherever I go [abroad], I try to see the big producers," adds the minister. The message is getting through. Two recent Hollywood movies, Entrapment and Anna and the King, were filmed in Malaysia. "It's very costly to advertise in the West," explains Abdul Kadir. That's why he welcomes films and TV series, which help "sell" Malaysia. Despite the odd gripe about unflattering images, he recognizes that the footage generally helps bring in tourists.

Between Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies, the social dynamics unveiled in Survivor may well veer toward the latter. Still, Pulau Tiga isn't quite the hostile jungle some might imagine. For one thing, stands of tapioca and sugar cane have been planted around the island lest the "castaways" prove less than successful at foraging from the forest. And though the group will be confined to a secluded area, Pulau Tiga already maintains a park headquarters and a system of trails. What's more, dive operator Douglas Primus has developed a seaside resort whose first guests will be the 100-person TV crew. (No, contestants won't be able to pop over for a Coke, says Primus.) And if the U.S. program is a hit, the travel business can only benefit. Sabah is a "fantastic adventure destination," Burnett says.

With reporting by Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur

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