NEW YORK – She wasn't the most athletic. Nor was she a villain. But Tennessee nurse Tina Wesson is $1 million richer anyway after winning Survivor: The Australian Outback.
CBS, ultimately, was the biggest winner. The show reached an audience of 35.8 million people, according to preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research. That's down from the 51 million people who watched the conclusion of the first Survivor last August but still makes it one of the most watched shows of the year.
Between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET, the audience peaked at 40.8 million, according to Nielsen.
In a grand finale that combined hokey entertainment with old-fashioned suspense Thursday night, Wesson won the television game show by a 4-3 vote over Texan heartthrob Colby Donaldson.
Wesson was described by fellow contestants as both a sweet mother of two and a ruthless schemer. The truth, she said, was that she was a little of both.
"You've got to have balance in life," she said.
Wesson, a last-minute alternate selection to go to Australia, owes her victory to a final miscalculation by Donaldson. After Donaldson won his fifth straight immunity challenge, he had to choose between Wesson and Keith Famie, the Michigan chef, as his final competitor. He sent Famie packing.
Donaldson's consolation prize: $100,000.
"I haven't lost one night of sleep wondering whether or not I would win because she deserves to win," he said.
"She really played the game," agreed fellow contestant Alicia Calaway. "It wasn't winning seven or eight challenges to get this far. It was using her brain. She's a smart woman and I think she deserves it."
Donaldson won the show's final immunity challenge narrowly over Wesson. It was a trivia quiz about fellow Survivor contestants.
Just as the second Survivor wasn't quite the ratings phenomenon it was last summer, the final episode lacked indelible moments like Susan Hawk's "rats and snakes" speech last summer. Wesson also wasn't nearly the polarizing force as original Survivor winner Richard Hatch.
Yet the show was still a strong ratings performer, and enabled CBS to become the first TV network to seriously challenge NBC for ratings dominance on Thursday nights in nearly two decades.
CBS again managed to keep secret the final winner. This time, CBS trusted fewer people, counting the votes in a live portion of Thursday's telecast. Even Wesson didn't know until then she had won.
Back in Knoxville, Wesson's grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins gathered at a Mexican restaurant with other fans to watch the finale on a big-screen television.
Wesson's aunt, Gail Woods, said her niece has "the sweetest personality. Her nickname is Sunshine. She has just always had a sunshine disposition. She could make lemons into lemonade."
The Outback setting proved a hardship for many of the players, whose strength was sapped at the end by hunger. One contestant, Maralyn Hershey, a retired police officer from Wakefield, Va., said it didn't bother her.
"After a couple of days my stomach was shrinking, I was losing weight, feeling good," Hershey said. "If only I could have stayed there a couple more weeks, I'd be wearing a thong."
One down note: Debb Eaton, the New Hampshire corrections officer who was the first voted off, nearly cried Thursday in describing how negative media attention made the experience a "bad trade" for her.
"I seem to have lost my belief in myself," she said. "But I will get it back."
The next Survivor competition will be in Africa, to be telecast in the fall. CBS is also considering a special celebrity edition. Comedian Ray Romano, actress Kate Hudson and basketball player Kobe Bryant have expressed interest, according to CBS President Leslie Moonves.