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January 16, 2003

Saunders: 'Survivor' tests deaf Coloradan

From: Rocky Mountain News, CO - 16 Jan 2003

HOLLYWOOD - The first installment of Survivor: The Amazon is a month away, but Christy Smith already is in a glaring spotlight.

The 24-year- old Basalt resident is one of the eight female contestants pitted against eight men when the sixth Survivor series premieres Feb. 13, on CBS.

However, Smith, a children's adventure guide, is fueling more interest than other contestants because she's deaf - the first person with a disability to compete on Survivor.

The inclusion of Smith has sparked numerous questions about her participation.

CBS and Survivor executives say that while Smith can hear minimal sounds she relies on lip-reading skills.

The fact she is deaf is a major reason why Smith applied for the show, according to executive producer Mark Burnett.

"Her primary motives are to promote awareness for the deaf," Burnett says.

Of course, the winner gets $1 million, which also is a major enticement.

Burnett adds he would have cast Smith "whether she could hear or not."

"She's a good character. It would be discriminatory not to bring her on because we were too nervous about her disability."

Host Jeff Probst says Smith was asked in her final interview if she thought it was fair to put her on Survivor.

"She thought about it and said: 'No, but life's not fair.'

"And that sort of summed up her approach to the show," Probst says.

"Without question, she'll be at a disadvantage."

As an example, Probst notes that at night when contestants are seated around a campfire, Smith would be unable to read lips. "She may be out of luck in situations like that," Probst adds.

"We decided that this is supposed to be a show about 16 people getting along together. This person happens to be deaf. Yeah, it will be tough for her, but I think it will be a good experience for her and, hopefully, for the other people to know what it's like to go that extra mile when you're really competing against somebody.

"How much of a hand do you give a person like Christy?"

Predictably, CBS President and CEO Les Moonves agrees with Burnett and Probst.

"She deserves to be on the show. It would have been a disservice to her to turn her down because of her adversity."

Smith could be a major player in this Survivor drama, particularly if she's still with the Jaburu (women's) tribe after several weeks.

Alliances are always formed; that's part of Survivor's intrigue. So, initially Smith might have numerous woman friends who could help her in hearing situations. But what happens when it gets down to nitty-gritty survivalism?

Millions of viewers will tune in to find out.

Predictions were made several weeks ago that Survivor: The Amazon would turn into a battle of the sexes, pitting an all-male tribe (Tambaqui) against the women.

Such competition is sort of a survival mechanism to keep viewers interested in Survivor amid the glut of reality-style programming now being aired.

And based on a 12-minute excerpt shown to a roomful of TV critics, friendly battle lines will be drawn. There was a lot of good-natured cheering and booing as the battle of the sexes began.

And then came the obvious question: Won't men have an advantage over the women because of physical strength?

Burnett says producers have designed a broader mix of challenges to avoid men getting such advantages, adding that similar adjustments were made on Survivor: Thailand when older members were concentrated in one tribe.

Indicating Survivor is "the daddy of 'em all" when it comes to reality series, Burnett says: "We're in another world compared to those other shows.

"We have a core audience, and as long as we remain true to our dramatic arcs, we'll be fine."

While nearly 20 reality-type shows have premiered since Survivor debuted in 2000, none has tried to directly emulate Survivor - until now.

During the February sweeps (15 consecutive nights), ABC, in an obvious copycat move, will air I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, featuring "stars" who are stranded in Australia.

CBS was concerned enough that it filed suit in a Los Angeles Court, claiming the ABC project was too close to Survivor in format.

The court ruled Monday that ABC's show will go on.

TODAY'S NOSTALGIA: On Jan. 16, 1989, ABC aired The Ryan White Story, a docudrama about a young boy afflicted with AIDS. Lukas Haas played the victim and Judith Light portrayed his mother.

Dusty Saunders is the broadcasting critic. Saunders@RockyMountain or (303) 892-5137
2003 © The E.W. Scripps Co.