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Fox Spies and Other Rumors From the Outback

November 17, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rumor sounds like a classic conspiracy theory: Would Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp. and patriarch of the Fox network, direct his Australian newspapers to bedevil production of "Survivor: The Australian Outback," being shot in his own corporate backyard?

No way, said a Murdoch spokeswoman, despite reports that local newspapers--several owned by Murdoch--and freelance journalists have sought to breach the tight security surrounding production of the "Survivor" sequel, which is due to premiere on CBS after the Super Bowl in January.

Murdoch's papers in the country include the Daily Telegraph, the Australian and the smaller Cairns Post, which is near the "Survivor" location. Helicopters have flown over the production site seeking aerial photographs, and some in Hollywood have indicated they believe there is a desire to undermine the new "Survivor" after the first became an enormous ratings success during the summer.

"The notion is absurd," said Kris Neill, a News spokeswoman in Australia, who added that the rumor is "absolutely baseless."

News officials point out that coverage in News-owned papers has been far from excessive, and that other Australian papers, which Murdoch doesn't control, have been equally aggressive in seeking tidbits about the show. They also dismiss the notion that Murdoch has time to focus on such minutiae.

Still, CBS is hardly out of the woods in trying to keep details of "Survivor II" secret. Indeed, freelance journalists and a Web site run by someone called "The Yowie Man" have steadily sought to leak information, including an unconfirmed report on the latter's http://www.yowieman.com.au that a contestant was hospitalized after an accident during one of the show's "challenges." The Web site contains a map to the production and pledges, "If someone near as sneezes on the 'secret' Survivor II site . . . you'll hear it first here."

A CBS spokesman noted there were several erroneous press reports regarding the first "Survivor" and that the show's popularity has given rise to "conspiracy theories, wild speculation and opportunists trying to make a name for themselves." The network is standing by its policy of not confirming or denying reports about the program, a strategy used with the first version as well.

Headaches related to the earlier "Survivor" aren't entirely over either. A freelance writer, Peter Lance, is promoting a book--initiated with the cooperation of eventual winner Richard Hatch, who later pulled out--indicating that the show's producers manipulated the action in a way that could have affected the outcome. The network has dismissed that allegation as "totally unfounded."

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