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Television * Everybody kept the secret, enticing about 58 million people to watch the show’s last half-hour.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Academy Awards came in August for CBS, as 51.7 million people watched an average minute of the two-hour “Survivor” finale Wednesday, a figure that rose to roughly 58 million during the 9:30-to-10-p.m. half-hour, when corporate trainer Richard Hatch was revealed as the $1-million winner.

Tune-in far surpassed pre-broadcast estimates, surpassing this year’s Oscar telecast to rank behind only the Super Bowl in terms of programs televised during the past year.

Those results are even more remarkable given that the project nearly ended up on ABC and that CBS’ summer-long victory party appeared in jeopardy before it began, after Hatch’s arrest in April on suspicion of child abuse--an incident that happened after the program finished taping on the island of Pulau Tiga but more than a month before its premiere.

Sources indicated at the time that senior CBS officials were fearful that the arrest of the program’s eventual winner might endanger their investment. There was even some brief discussion, according to sources, as to whether--if the charges turned out to be true--the network would be able to broadcast “Survivor” at all.

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CBS quickly came up with the response that they couldn’t control contestants’ actions once they returned to their regular lives. Privately, network officials also pointed to prime-time stars such as “Home Improvement’s” Tim Allen and “Frasier’s” Kelsey Grammer, who experienced run-ins with the law without having their programs canceled.

Hatch was arrested by the Middletown, R.I., Police Department for allegedly dragging his adopted 9-year-old son out of bed at 4:30 in the morning and forcing him to jog. Hatch acknowledged during an interview with “Dateline NBC” earlier this week that he had done so because the boy put on weight while he was on the island but denied the boy’s allegations he had been grabbed by the ear and had his face shoved into the ground, causing a bruise on his forehead.

The case is still pending, but the child has been returned to Hatch, who filed a $1.5-million lawsuit against the state last month, claiming Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families had wrongly removed the boy from his home.

The network arranged a conference call on Thursday for Hatch, 39, who also conducted dozens of broadcast interviews, including CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Early Show” as well as “Entertainment Tonight.”

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“It’s really sad what happened,” Hatch said when asked about his arrest, predicting the action against him will be dismissed “any day now.” He called Rhode Island authorities “irresponsible” and said he and his attorneys are “doing the best we can to hold people responsible for their actions.”

Despite CBS’ emphasis on keeping the winner secret--and the willingness of most media outlets, including The Times, to respect viewers by not seeking to divulge the outcome, much like the ending of a movie--the Providence Journal-Bulletin quoted one of Hatch’s family members in April as saying he had been on the island for 40 days and was among the finalists. Bound contractually by CBS, the contestants stayed mum, facing stiff financial penalties if they disclosed who won.

Hatch said he didn’t tell his mother he had won and lied to his sister and son to protect the secret. Although some have characterized him as the villain of the show because of his scheming with other contestants, he added that he considered himself “one of the most moral and ethical people I’ve met.”

Hatch: ‘Celebrity and

Fame Aren’t Goals’

As for the negative perception others may hold toward him from the show, Hatch said having grown up gay and overweight in New England he learned to be “very, very comfortable with who I am.”

Hatch, who has agreed to guest-host a radio show in Rhode Island next week and appeared in a “Got Milk?” ad, said he has yet to sign with a Hollywood agent and is contemplating various career opportunities, among them writing a book.

“Celebrity and fame aren’t goals of mine,” he said. “It’s not something that I’m driven toward.”

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Several other “Survivor” contestants have secured endorsement deals off their newfound fame, as well as a regular stint on the TV program “Extra” and offers to pose for Playboy. Hatch said he was unaware of a reported endorsement deal for the winner with shoe marketer Reebok.

Clearly, Hatch is a recognizable figure now. The final “Survivor” was a ratings bonanza, trailing only the Super Bowl (at 88.5 million viewers) to emerge as the most-watched program on CBS since Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding skated in the 1994 Winter Olympics. By way of comparison, roughly 46 million people watched the Oscars in March, while 48 million tuned in for ABC’s Barbara Walters interview with Monica Lewinsky in 1999.

After the two-hour finale, an interview show with the 16 contestants, hosted by “The Early Show’s” Bryant Gumbel, averaged nearly 39 million viewers. Letterman’s program, featuring a Top 10 list read by the castaways, also experienced a significant ratings bounce, attracting 20% of homes watching television in its time slot--roughly doubling its usual average and easily beating “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Even CBS’ “Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn"--the subject of recent controversy for flashing the words “snipers wanted” under a picture of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush--equaled its highest rating since its March 1999 premiere.

CBS reaped a major financial harvest from the night, garnering as much as $600,000, according to the network, for some of the 30-second commercials broadcast, a rate comparable with the top dollar commanded by NBC’s “ER.”

Still, given the viewership that might have been a bargain. Commercials during the Academy Awards--admittedly a far more prestigious showcase--this year for the first time topped the $1-million mark per 30-second spot.

In addition to the bottom-line benefit, CBS is hoping more nebulously that the program helped promote its fall lineup. Wednesday’s telecast was replete with ads for new CBS prime-time series such as Bette Midler’s upcoming sitcom.

Sources Say ABC’s Tarses Passed on the Project

The program’s success has been especially vexing to executives at ABC, who, according to sources, had the project in their grasp before former ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses opted to pass on it. Producer Mark Burnett and his representatives subsequently made their deal with CBS, which later bought the similarly themed “Big Brother.”

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Hatch won the top prize by a 4-3 vote of ousted contestants over fellow finalist Kelly Wiglesworth, 23, who receives $100,000. Police in Greensboro, N.C., have said Wiglesworth is wanted on a 5-year-old warrant on suspicion of using a stolen credit card--a fact apparently missed by producers in her background check. North Carolina police said the Las Vegas resident would be arrested if she came into the state.

During the conference call, Hatch said the producers prohibited contestants from seeking to buy votes by offering other players a portion of the $1-million prize.


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