NEW YORK - Richard Hatch, the ruthless strategist on CBS' ''Survivor,'' proved his mettle Wednesday night by wangling the million-dollar prize.
During the two-hour finale, Hatch edged out three rival castaways on the tropical island that served as the setting for this game-show hit. Outlasting Kelly Wiglesworth, Rudy Boesch and Susan Hawk, Hatch became the lone survivor from the 16 who marooned themselves on remote Pulau Tiga at the series' launch in May.
The final choice - between Hatch and Wiglesworth - was handed down by a jury of seven former tribe-mates. Their vote was a squeaker: 4 to 3.
''I wouldn't change anything that I did,'' Rich told the jury in a final statement.
When ''Survivor'' premiered three months ago, critics called it ''Gilligan's Island'' meets ''Lord of the Flies.'' On Wednesday, much of America called it a must-see.
But the TV show more directly comparable was ''Dallas.'' Since that drama's ''Who Shot J.R.?'' mystery in 1980, nothing television dealt out had gripped the nation in quite the same way - until ''Survivor.''
An audience that experts said might reach 40 million awaited the final resolution: Would Rudy, Richard, Susan or Kelly be the island castaway who returned home a millionaire?
A half-hour into the show, Susan, the trucker from Palmyra, Wis., was sacked in a tribal vote.
River guide Kelly had won immunity from that vote after correctly answering the most questions about former castaways. She also won the second immunity challenge by standing the longest with a hand on the immunity idol. Her only remaining rival in that contest, Rudy, dropped out after 4 hours, 11 minutes.
Then, in the second tribal council, Kelly was placed in the odd position of single-handedly deciding the fates of Richard and Rudy. Rudy, the retired Navy SEAL from Virginia Beach, Va., was picked off by Kelly.
''I never thought I'd come this far,'' said Rudy, many oddsmakers' favorite to win.
That left Kelly and Rich.
By then, ''Survivor'' buzz, predictions and, most of all, hype had reached epic proportions.
So had festivities by fans who threw ''Survivor'' viewing parties, complete with tropical costumes and the ever-present threat of getting voted out of the bash.
Jumping on the reality-TV bandwagon, CBS launched the 13-week ''Survivor'' on May 31 to breathe life into a prime-time schedule largely filled with reruns. The show had been taped during 39 days last spring on the island of Pulau Tiga near Borneo.
On opening night, the 16 volunteers were seen arriving on the tiny tropical isle. By the end of the hour - actually three days later - the first among them had been voted off the island during a solemn tribal council.
All summer, CBS beat the ''Survivor'' drum, from morning (on its ''Early Show,'' where weekly castoffs were showcased) to night (on Wednesdays, ''Late Show'' host David Letterman welcomed the castaways to recite the Top 10 list).
But no newspaper, TV show or magazine seemed able to resist. USA Today on Wednesday featured a full-page color advertisement (''Got Milk?'') with the Final Four wearing milk mustaches. Entertainment Weekly pushed back its deadline by a day and prepared four possible covers, so as to feature the winner as its cover story. NBC's ''Today'' show even interviewed Dawn Wells, who nearly 40 years ago played Mary Ann on the castaways comedy ''Gilligan's Island.''
The first ''Survivor'' episode drew a healthy 15.5 million viewers, but by mid-August, that number had nearly doubled.
To keep the audience hooked, CBS imposed an information clampdown, even as the castaways resumed their normal lives - and one of them, already the big winner, quietly envisioned life with a million-dollar jackpot. Everyone associated with the show signed a nondisclosure agreement with stiff cash penalties.
On the Net: