<EM>Survivor: Cook Islands</EM> Survivor: Cook Islands

"Think of Survivor like a letter from a loved one," says Mark Burnett, who created the reality show that's now coming to the end of its 13th season. "You recognize the envelope and the handwriting, but [inside] is a fresh letter." "Fresh" is a good word to describe what's coming up in the finale of CBS' Survivor: Cook Islands. In an exclusive sneak peek, Burnett and host Jeff Probst tell TVGuide.com how they'll upend hallowed traditions on Cook's finale airing Sunday, Dec. 17.

Cooking the Numbers: There will be three finalists (instead of the usual two) at the final tribal council. And with the size of the jury raised to nine (from seven), there's the possibility of a three-way tie in the competition for the $1 million prize. Not to mention a bigger dose of rancor, bile and wacko questions from cast-offs who make up the newly expanded jury.

Final Challenges: The finale begins busting protocol immediately with five players still in the game. Their first challenge, Burnett reveals, "is the hardest puzzle we've ever done, called Compass Rose." Challenge producer Dan Munday spent two days, "like a mad scientist, cutting pieces of wood," says Probst. " Finally, he showed us exactly how it comes apart and then asked us to put it back together. I quit after 30 minutes." It takes the winner 25 minutes to solve it, Probst reveals, adding that "this final five had the highest IQs of any final five." The final four's last immunity challenge involves balancing on a very small post, one that gets smaller and smaller — 10 feet above the water. "It required balance but also intense concentration and pain tolerance, because it was made of steel and was not comfortable," Probst explains.

Survivors' Reactions: How does the surviving quartet react to the news that there would be three headed to the final tribal council? "The reaction is mixed," says Probst. "A couple are excited because it gives them an extra shot at the million. But for the other two, there is a sense of dread — they realize the strategy they had been planning won't work. From an audience point of view," says Probst, "the best news is that you have at least two people who are likable and very deserving of winning, and for me, that is a home run. I'll be very satisfied that whoever wins is a good winner."

Live Doin's: The big prize will be awarded in L.A. "The coolest part of the finale is that we're re-creating the tribal-council shipwreck at the CBS studios," Probst reveals.

The finale changes come at the conclusion of a season marked by new rules and procedures — first and foremost, the racially segregated teams that opened the Cook Islands contest. Despite the loud, early criticism of the tactic, Burnett says he's proud of the season. "What it really showed is that the American public will embrace a diverse cast," he says. "And the number of applications from minorities is now getting larger, because they see they have chance." So who's going to win? We asked Burnett to handicap the six players still in the game.

Yul: "He has that dangerous combination of being extremely likable and extremely cerebral. He used the immunity idol in a very smart way, and it actually turned the game."
Ozzy: "He's one of the greatest challenge players we've ever had, up there with Terry and Colby. He certainly is a target."
Adam: "There's no question that we've focused on his alliance with Candice, but he's a very strong player. He might be more clever than we think." (Candice, who was booted a couple of weeks ago, was "near genius," says Burnett, but Adam was "her Achilles heel.")
Becky: "She may be playing a clever, silent but deadly game in that she's letting [her ally] Yul take all the heat [while], for much of the show, she has been under the radar."
Parvati: "Parvati's a good athlete and can be a very strong challenge player, and she's not afraid to use her sexuality."
Sundra: "Sundra has offended nobody, and is the kind of person who can go to the end because she's not seen as a threat. And if she gets to the end — everyone likes her."

And the future? Survivor: Fiji — the show's 14th edition, set on the South Pacific island — will likely debut in February. "It has an extremely unique opening episode," Burnett says. "There will be an Exile Island, but it's quite different, and the hidden immunity portion of the game has an interesting twist." And look for yet another new way to divide the tribes — and keep Survivor fresh.

Send your comments on this feature to letters@tvguide.com