Are these guys just really smart, or do they know something 30 million "Survivor" viewers don't?
What, after all, explains the remarkable forecasting streak of the oddly named Ellipsiiis Brain Trust? For the past seven weeks, the semi-mysterious Internet group has been accurately calling the twists and turns of "Survivor: The Australian Outback," from winners of "reward challenges" to each week's booty.
The brain trust foresaw contestant Rodger Bingham's surprise demise last week; it called Colby Donaldson's consecutive "immunity challenge" wins. It even predicted the washout of the Barramundi camp in a flash flood during Week 11 of TV's most popular program.
Warning: Possibly accurate spoiler information contained in this paragraph. . . . Tonight, the team says, Elisabeth Filarski -- once widely rumored to be the program's $1 million winner -- will take the final walk. If that is accurate, next week's two-hour series finale would be a contest among Colby, Keith Famie and Tina Wesson. To hype the suspense, CBS has said it will reveal the winner in a live segment next week.
Okay, you can resume reading now. . . . Such is the hothouse media atmosphere around "Survivor" that the Ellipsiiis team (whose work appears at www.ellipsiiis.com/survivor) has spawned its own set of rumors. The most intriguing is that its hitting streak is a result of inside production intelligence as well as special access to advance footage of the program, which was taped months ago. After three of its five predictions came true last week, the site teased viewers with a couplet: "Wonder how we do it? It's really quite a feat. A [satellite] feed from Nova Scotia last November proved a treat."
But that's all it was, a tease, says Melissa Batson, the 22-year-old founder and webmaster of the site. "No, we're not getting advance footage out of Nova Scotia," she says.
Instead, the group, which consists of 120 "Survivor" devotees, has a far more mundane methodology. Members look for clues by analyzing promotions for the show that air on CBS prior to each week's episode. They also pick over the wording of official press releases and media interviews with cast members (when one booted contestant spoke in the past tense about another recently, bells rang among the brain trust).
Drawing on these scraps, group members compare notes via e-mail, do a little deductive reasoning and vote on likely outcomes. The consensus pick is the official prediction (and, no, they haven't gotten around to picking a winner yet).
Since the board began posting predictions before Week 7, the consensus has been right 26 of 29 times.
Among other things, the group foresaw the ousters of Jeff, Alicia, Jerri, Nick and Rodger in the correct order. Its only misses have been forecasting the identity of the winner of the immunity challenge in Week 7; the winner of last week's reward challenge; and the answer to a trivia question (Does everyone on the episode cry?), also last week.
Batson can't reveal the names of the group's members, mostly because she doesn't know who many of them are (members communicate with one another using screen names). The team was loosely formed last season via a message board on another Web site, then decided to go solo this year. Each player recommended other would-be members, who were allowed in after demonstrating examples of their "Survivor" analytical prowess.
For its part, CBS officials disavow any knowledge of, or connection to, the group, one of several on the Internet that provide "Survivor" spoilers. "I'm not aware of them," says Chris Ender, the network's chief spokesman. "Quite honestly, we've learned not to worry too much about these. There's so much information out there that viewers have a hard time determining what's accurate and what's not."
In fact, during "Survivor's" first season last summer, producer Mark Burnett helped to muddy the water, spreading disinformation designed to fool would-be sleuths. Burnett has said he's given up such efforts this year.
Batson concedes CBS has the luxury of ignoring the Ellipsiiis group because its work has made little difference to "Survivor's" ratings. Traffic to the site has never exceeded 18,000 a day, which is a speck compared with the TV show's weekly audience.
The real question may be why even 18,000 people want to have their Thursday evening surprises ruined -- and why 120 more spend so much time trying to spoil it for them.
"I'm the sort of person who's impatient to know what happens," says Batson, a college student. "For others, they see reality TV programs as the end of our society, and they want to screw it up. . . . For some people, it's a challenge to try and figure it out. I guess that's a natural instinct."
Besides, she notes, the program still carries plenty of suspense. Says Batson, "You never know. We could be wrong."