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'Survivor' winner Kwon to screen 'America Revealed' in Austin

Dale Roe

"I spent much of the time on the verge of having a panic attack," says Yul Kwon, the winner of "Survivor's" 2006 season, shot in the South Pacific's Cook Islands. "I have a very intense fear of heights, and I also get claustrophobic. And I get motion sickness on planes."

Here's the thing: Kwon's not talking about the popular reality show — these were issues he encountered while filming "America Revealed," currently airing on PBS. He's in town to host a free screening of the program, which examines the country's systems for food production, transportation, electric power and more, Monday night.

"A lot of the stuff we filmed was from way up in the sky or on top of these tall buildings or in these tiny, enclosed spaces," he says. "I was spending a lot of time in between takes curled up in a fetal position, trying to stay in my happy place."

Kwon left a government job — he's former deputy chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at the FCC — to host the series, the U.S. version of a popular British program.

"At the time I wasn't really looking to go back into television, but they told me what the series was about and it just sounded so interesting," he says.

"I left government to do this because I feel like there are these big issues we need to focus on."

A lot of our country's systems — whether they provide us with food or allow us to move around or give us energy — have reached capacity and are getting to the breaking point, says Kwon, who had a lot of input on the series' content.

"These are things that have really allowed our country to become the best country in the world. They set the foundation for economic growth. My concern is if we don't talk about these issues now and make smart decisions, our children or their children will not find themselves being able to afford the same standard of living that we enjoy."

The host landed on the show the same way he got his "Survivor" gig — he was recruited. The "America Revealed" producers, he says, were looking for someone with his academic background (Kwon studied symbolic systems at Stanford). It didn't hurt that he is an Asian American at a time when diversity is increasingly valued on television. And, of course, his "Survivor" win gave him a certain notoriety.

"They're trying to make PBS relevant to a new generation of people, and I think as audiences get younger they're also looking for some of that cultural connection," says Kwon who, as the son of immigrants, learned to speak English by watching "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company."

"To the extent that I was on a show like ‘Survivor,' which is kind of an icon of pop culture, I think they thought that would also add a new dimension."

Kwon says that coming from a government background made him conscious of the need to present the topics from a nonpartisan perspective.

"There's a lot of rhetoric and partisan talk in government. People are just kind of yelling past each other. There's an absence of civil, constructive dialogue," he says. "This show is about how things work today and how they got here. It's not about how they should work."

Kwon will talk about his experiences creating the show and answer questions from the audience at Monday's event.

Contact Dale Roe at 912-5923 Twitter: @djroe

Yul Kwon screens "America Revealed"