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Will "Survivor's" secret survive the Net?

Fans of the CBS summer hit may wish they were stranded on a deserted island themselves in the hours leading up to the grand finale tonight, when the winner will be revealed.

Fans of the CBS smash summer hit "Survivor" may wish they were stranded on a deserted island themselves in the hours leading up to the grand finale tonight, when the winner of the $1 million contest will be revealed.

"I want to be surprised," said David Eckstein, a fan who plans to host a "Survivor" party tonight in San Francisco, where the show will air three hours after an 8 p.m. ET broadcast. "If there is a leak, I will not put myself in a position to hear it."

Staying out of harm's way won't be quite as hard as the challenges faced by the show's cast, who toughed it out on a desert island in dwindling numbers over 39 days, voting one of their fellow castaways off the island every three days.

But with non-CBS Internet sites and radio stations pledging to announce the winner in real time, the world could be a hazardous place for those hoping to maintain the suspense until broadcast time.

Fan site, for one, warns fans that they should "probably avoid all media today--no more Internet, no radio, no TV. You should probably hide from your friends and family as well: Some fool's going to accidentally spill the beans. We suggest that you go home immediately, lock your door, turn off all the lights, and lay on the floor curled up in a ball until it's time for the show."

Four contestants out of the original cast of 16 remain in the running--corporate trainer Richard Hatch, 39, of Newport, R.I.; Kelly Wiglesworth, 23, a river guide from Las Vegas; Rudy Boesch, 72, a retired Navy Seal from Virginia Beach, Va.; and Susan Hawk, 38, a trucker from Palmyra, Wis.

Cybersleuths have been in hot pursuit of early news of the winner, who was actually decided some four months ago. Various guesses have been hazarded, though most appear to be culled from dubious sources. Earlier in the show, CBS planted a false rumor on its own Web site that the winner was Gervase Peterson, a youth basketball coach. He was tossed off the island Aug. 2, giving fans a second chance to savor the suspense.

Fears ran high yesterday that the winner would be revealed early when an ex-show member appeared in a televised interview on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" talk show, which airs on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Dirk Been, a religious castaway booted from the island in the show's fifth week, speculated about why he may have been expelled but did not let the secret slip.

All contestants entered confidentiality agreements and could be subject to heavy monetary damages if they give up the winner's name. The final winner was chosen by a panel of seven ex-castaways.

Some high-tech sleuthing methods also have been pulled into service to crack the mystery. Security company Protonesis on July 12 said it used proprietary linguistics analysis techniques to deduce the winner: (stop reading now if you don't want to know...) Boesch, a pick seconded on

Viacom-owned CBS could not immediately be reached for comment, but it has said in the past that the secret is safe.

Not that all advance information remained stranded with the cast: News that Greg Buis would be voted off the island appeared on CBS's Web site hours before it was revealed in Episode 8.

Keeping the suspense high is crucial for the network, which has seen a big payoff from the quirky summer gamble. Ratings experts predict the show could attract as many as 40 million viewers tonight, ranking it as the third-most-watched show so far this season, behind the Super Bowl (88.5 million) and the Academy Awards (46.3 million).

David Card, an analyst with Jupiter Communications, said shows such as "Survivor" offer a ray of hope for TV broadcasters, which are casting about for ways to converge traditional entertainment with the Web--and also to stave off new technology that could eventually render prime-time television a thing of the past.

"People call this reality programming, but it's really not," Card said. "It's event programming. The show is fun because it's suspenseful, like a football game...Event programming will be all the rage on television because of time-shifting devices like TiVo (that allow viewers to skip ads). Broadcasters are already figuring out ways to make these changes work for them."

Shows are proliferating that play on the suspense of events augmented by a Web component, he said, including ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and CBS's "Big Brother."

Whether the formula can be repeated endlessly remains to be seen, however.

"'Big Brother' is bad," opined "Survivor" fan Eckstein. "It's like one big, happy family. The fun part is when people get catty and start fighting with each other. 'Survivor' is like a soap-opera-game-show on acid."