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Too much manipulating _ of me

At first, the signs were small.

I'd tape episodes and they'd lie around, unwatched, for days.

My interest in hanging with friends at work who gathered, watercooler-style, to trade gossip began to wane.

Now, it's obvious. I've lost my love for Survivor.

Why? Let me count the ways.

No. 1: I can't stand the people.

Among the 16 contestants CBS isolated on a tropical island last year, fans found endearing personalities: focused, stand-up gal Gretchen Cordy, lovingly airheaded cutie Colleen Haskell, party-hearty knucklehead Gervase Peterson, ukulele-toting grandma Sonja Christopher. Even crusty, militaristic homophobe Rudy Boesch won viewers' hearts _ or at least their interest _ by teaming with the show's only openly gay contestant.

But the cast of Survivor: The Australian Outback wore out their TV welcome quickly. It goes without saying that Jerri Manthey's manipulative arrogance and Michael Skupin's Men's Movement-style enthusiasm has made me want to throw a brick at the TV screen more than once.

But you can list every participant here by their annoying character traits: Kimmi Kappenberg (loudmouth vegan annoyance); Debb Eaton (pushy prude); Jeff Varner (persnickety, perpetual complainer); Maralyn Hershey (brassy lounge singer). And so on.

The original cast was so struck by their circumstances, it took weeks before the claws really came out. But these goons, prepared by watching the first season, set upon each other from the show's first moments. Their litany of complaints and petty moves made early episodes feel like The Real World: Aussie Style.

Initially separated into two tribes competing in team "challenges" _ the losing tribe had to vote a member off every three days _ the two teams merged earlier this month, only cranking up the crankiness. Makes you wonder what will happen once the last seven ejectees return to pick the $1-million winner from two finalists May 3.

Even Jerri's clumsy grab for the Richard Hatch In-Your-Face award _ one minute, she's stealing a canoe to thwart teammates, the next, she's accusing fellow tribe member Kel Gleason of chewing non-existent beef jerky _ lacked Hatch's oily charm.

As with ex-President Clinton, you always knew Survivor winner Hatch was jiving you. But he did it so well, you could only marvel at his chutzpah.

Too bad none of these losers learned that lesson from last year.

No. 2: We know too much.

As last week's episode unfolded, I knew within 10 minutes poor Alicia Calaway was a goner.

Why? Because producers spent the show's first half-hour distracting us from the fact that Calaway was the next logical ejectee. Instead, they suggested group animosity over Manthey's, um, catty behavior had sealed her doom.

By now, we all know Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett's moves. A show never ends the way it begins; That's a Survivor trademark.

Last week's ejection vote sealed the deal; despite all the angst about Manthey, the merged Ogakor and Kucha teams voted along old tribal lines once again. Which means the five ex-Ogakor members will keep picking off their ex-rivals until all are gone _ just as Hatch's tribe did last year, by the way _ meaning savvy viewers already know how the next few episodes will end.

Speaking of predictions: What happened to CBS's Survivor security?

Last year, producers floated disinformation suggesting victories by Peterson and Cordy that hoodwinked everyone. This year, pictures of the Australian set were on the Internet weeks before the show aired, along with the names of the contestants ( correctly predicted the first two ejectees, Debb and Kel, weeks before the show aired).

And the information glut continues.

Last year, you got the feeling that, despite all the cameos on CBS/Viacom properties such as VH1, Entertainment Tonight and TNN (how else would Susan Hawk wind up on that creepy, low-budget drama 18 Wheels of Justice?), the media was just trying to catch up with America's Survivor mania. We couldn't get enough of these clods, and the media, like some back-alley celebrity pusher, complied.

This time, the roles are reversed. Before we get a chance to decide how we feel, we're subjected to "Mad Dog" Hershey singing lounge tunes and Gleason playing dumb (okay, maybe he wasn't exactly playing) with David Letterman.

We won't even talk about those dopey "Survivor Extra" stories WTSP-Ch. 10 insists on airing several times a week (watch Ramona Gray tell a Los Angeles-based CBS reporter how much she loves CBS's latest Survivor episode! Talk about putting the "sin" in synergy).

No. 3: We don't trust the producers anymore.

Consider: some fans still insist Mad Mike's embarrassing exit from the show a few weeks ago _ tell me again, how does an experienced camper pass out while standing in front of a campfire? _ was a put-on.

In the first year, we were skeptical believers. Even when the two tribes merged with an equal number of people from each team, the group was equally split between men and women. (Which also happened this year. Coincidence?)

Even when spoilsport Kelly Wiglesworth won five immunity challenges in a row, just as Hatch was planning to eliminate her, we believed. And when crazy Greg Buis cast his tie-breaking vote for the final winner based on a random number picked by Hatch, we swallowed hard _ but believed.

But now, in the wake of a lawsuit by original Survivor alum Stacey Stillman, alleging at least one tribal council vote was rigged, we've all become a little jaded.

Which explains why animal advocacy groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals can credibly suggest Skupin's slaughtering of a wild boar was also a set-up. (After explaining the campfire thing, can somebody tell me why killing a pig for food is worse than killing chickens, worms, fish or sting rays _ all of which happened last year?)

You get the picture. Thanks to an overbearing cast, transparently manipulative production and growing familiarity, this once guilty pleasure is more like a nagging obligation.

Wonder what the sequel to Temptation Island will be like?