It's not just a popularity contest from hell. It's a study of human nature.
And, boy, are people studying.
As CBS' Survivor II: The Australian Outback comes down to the wire - the winner will be revealed live tonight in a two-hour special - speculation is raging over who among the three finalists will get the boot and who will win $1 million.
For 24 contestants in The Augusta Chronicle's Survivor contest, the speculation is more than academic. It's a matter of prize money.
After the first episode, The Chronicle invited readers to predict who would win the reality game show. After the winner is revealed, the newspaper will draw one person's name from the correct entries for a $100 prize.
Charlie Paladino of Augusta isn't expecting to be in that pool.
"Yeah, I think my guy's out," she said this week. "I think I'm done."
Ms. Paladino was one of 10 people who chose 40-year-old Keith Famie, a Michigan chef. She chose him because he looked strong - and she hoped that other contestants would want to keep him around for his culinary skills.
"Now, his chances are looking ... they're not real good, I think," she admitted with a laugh. "I think he might be the next to go."
In recent weeks, Ms. Paladino found herself rooting against her choice. She was upset last week when Elisabeth Filarski, 23, a shoe designer from Rhode Island, was voted off the show, leaving Mr. Famie; Colby Donaldson, 26; and Tina Wesson, 40. Ms. Filarski wasn't selected by anyone in The Chronicle's contest.
Ms. Paladino predicts that Ms. Wesson, a mother and part-time nursing assistant from Knoxville, Tenn., will win the $1 million, although she thinks that Mr. Donaldson has a good chance.
"I think he's got a pretty good start - he seems to be playing the game right so far," said Gary Foss, one of 12 people who chose the auto customizer from Texas. "He's been a good old boy and didn't rub anybody the wrong way. The only one he really rubbed the wrong way has been Jerri (Manthey)."
Questions about who will win almost invariably bring on analyses of character dynamics and personality clashes. Who on the jury - a panel of the seven most recently booted contestants - will vote for whom, and why? The show has spawned not only dozens of Web sites but also Internet message boards where fans flock to exchange "spoilers" for upcoming shows and hash out the Machiavellian alliances and animosities among contestants - all to try to predict who will be voted out during upcoming shows.
What's the popular wisdom this week? Well ...
Many fans believe it all comes down to the "IC" - the immunity challenge - a weekly mental or physical test. The winner of the challenge can't be voted off the show that week. This week's winner gets not only immunity but also the crucial vote in deciding whom they'll face when the jury votes to award the million bucks.
Mr. Donaldson won the last three immunity challenges, and many feel this one could be all-or-nothing for him. If he wins immunity again, they think he's a lock to win the money - most think more jury members favor him. That means he could vote out one of the other finalists.
If Mr. Famie wins immunity, many fans think he would be wise to keep Ms. Wesson in the game because the jury would favor Mr. Donaldson. But fans still don't think Mr. Famie would get enough votes to beat Ms. Wesson. This could come down to a choice of who Mr. Famie wants to see get the money - and speculation is that he'd rather it go to Ms. Wesson than to Mr. Donaldson, given recent animosity between the men.
If Ms. Wesson wins immunity, many think the alliance between her and Mr. Donaldson will fall apart. She has already been labeled a "back-stabber" by some fans, and the strategic choice would be for her to keep Mr. Famie - whom she can beat in the jury vote - with her.
While the final votes have been cast, no one knows who won. The votes have been sealed since filming ended in the fall. They'll be revealed during the live two-hour special from 8 to 10 tonight.
Tonight (Thursday), after the final interaction among the remaining three competitors of Survivor II: the Australian Outback, the $1 million winner will be announced in a live segment. Then at 10 p.m. executive producer Mark Burnett will give all 16 contestants an opportunity to confront their rivals during a live reunion with host Bryant Gumbel.
Still in the game
Here are the 24 players who survived 13 weeks in The Chronicle's contest. We'll draw one name from the correct entries on Friday and notify the $100 prize winner by phone.
COLBY DONALDSON: Jennifer Little and Terry Jolley, Aiken; Will Reeve and Pat Campbell, Augusta; Tony Hobson, Laurie Johnston and Tammy Hutto, Evans; April Long, Gary Foss, John Brandberg and Jessica Tant, Martinez; Joyce Barden, Washington, Ga.
KEITH FAMIE: Charlie Paladino, Augusta; Stacy Mintz, Evans; Cheryl Brandberg, Elizabeth Laughridge and Robert Foster, Martinez; Kathy Rachels and Jeannette B. Proctor, North Augusta; Cheryl Gilchrist and Sheryl Burrow, Hephzibah; Teresa Moran, Waynesboro, Ga.
TINA WESSON: Kathy Salazar and John Cates, Augusta.