Book Blows Lid Off Survivor Secrecyby David Bloomberg --
On “Survivor Island,” Rich Hatch was not a man to be trifled with. Many of the contestants talked about how “overconfident” he was and all of them underestimated his ability to do whatever it took to win. But, as we saw, he wasn't overconfident at all.
While his own confidence and ability to outscheme, outwit, and outlast the others served him well on the island, he is finding that it's not quite so easy to control people and events in real life. Shortly after returning home, he found himself facing child abuse charges (later dropped); he wrongly claimed to be negotiating to host Australia's version of the show (not to be confused with the second American series, which is filming in Australia); he was co-authoring a book that had sold for $500,000 -- and then had to be dropped because of the contracts he'd signed with CBS.
That book deal is where we meet Hatch's 16thSurvivor victim, Peter Lance. Lance had originally been the planned co-author for the book about Survivor and Hatch's life. Instead, he ended up being shoved aside when Rich could not come through with the necessary approval from CBS. Hatch went on to write his own book, 101 Survival Secrets, and Lance was voted off of the project.
The story might have ended there if Lance had just been some anonymous ghost writer. But just as Hatch was not to be trifled with on the island, Lance is not a man to be trifled with in real life. With five Emmy awards for investigative journalism, a law degree, and experience writing for and producing numerous television shows, Lance is the perfect person to take a hard look inside the production of Survivor. His new book, The Stingray: Lethal Tactics of the Sole Survivor (Shadow Lawn Press, $15.95), tells two interrelated stories. He not only takes a hard look at the show's winner, but also examines possible ethical and legal problems with the way the entire show was run.
In fact, the most interesting and controversial parts of the book don't really deal with Hatch at all. Instead, these parts are described by the subtitle: “The Inside Story of How the Castaways Were Controlled on the Island and Beyond.” He discusses a wide range of evidence of producers manipulating the show, from the way they edited video footage to showing portions out of order to the possibility of illegal tampering with the contestants. The reader has to wait until the end of the book to find the most newsworthy allegations, but it's worth it.
Those who have already tackled the official Survivor book, by producer Mark Burnett, or the book Rich went on to write, have already seen some of the information in the early pages of Stingray. There is, after all, only so many ways you can discuss the same island goings-on. But Lance intersperses island life with Hatch's own life history (mostly provided by Hatch when the two were still working together), showing how those early events prepared him for “the ultimate game.” He goes into detail regarding painful incidents in Hatch's background, some of which may make even the most vehement Hatch-haters cringe in sympathy.
Lance also uses Hatch's behavior to give advice to future participants in reality shows. Winning on the show is not the ultimate prize -- you still have to win in the public eye when you leave. So Lance offers ten tactics for winning and also provides his ten lessons on what to do after you've won. Much of the first comes from what Hatch did right (with a few on what he did wrong). Almost all of the latter come from observing Hatch and suggesting that people act quite differently.
One major area where Lance says future contestants should not use Hatch as a guide is in his deceptive nature. Lance looks into Hatch's real life in comparison to his game show persona. Many observers (including this author) have opined that there was nothing wrong with Hatch being deceptive on the show -- that's what it took to win. But Lance shows how that dishonesty was not limited to the island. Indeed, he points to a “'sham' Green Card marriage” in which the homosexual Hatch took part. He notes that Hatch lied in trying to find contact information on children he had fathered through earlier sperm donation. Finally, Hatch lied to Lance, their lawyer, and their editor when he told them they had CBS permission to write their book.
Another part of Hatch's life that has been largely avoided since the child abuse charges were dropped is how he and his son have dealt with their lives after Survivor. Unfortunately, if Lance was the 16th island victim, then Hatch's son, Chris, may be the inadvertent 17th. While Lance details how Hatch took in Chris and worked hard with him to get his behavior under control, he also notes that, “a week before the Survivor finale, Rich sent his adopted son Chris off to a boarding school in the Midwest. The little boy who dreamed so much of sharing his father's million, was not present in Studio 46 the night of Rich's public victory.”
Lance quotes an official from the Rhode Island Child Advocate's Office in wondering, “Why would you adopt a child and then send him out of state to some school? This is a child who has no family.” Lance does note that it is possible the rigid environment may be good for Chris, but if Hatch worked with him once before, the reader is left wondering why he would send him off now.
After all, the whole Survivor concept is supposed to deal with real people put in difficult situations. While Burnett may have controlled the game, and CBS certainly is exerting control over the ex-players, only Rich Hatch can control the answer to the ultimate question of how he lives his life from this point on.
But how much control did Burnett really have over the game? Do CBS and the producers of Survivor have something to hide? These are perhaps the most important questions in The Stingray.
There is little doubt, with the evidence provided by Lance, that the producers edited the show to adhere to a certain storyline. If that meant altering the timeframe when things supposedly happened, they did it. If that meant focusing on some things that were said and ignoring others to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, they did it.
However, there is a great deal of difference between that and actually intervening in the outcome of the show. Burnett knew the serious nature that such an accusation would have. In a cyberchat quoted by Lance, Burnett said that the show “does fall under game show rules” and that manipulating the game would “be against the law.”
But evidence gathered by Lance indicates that may be exactly what happened -- on several occasions.
In one example, Lance alleges that the producers intervened when each tribe chose an ambassador to discuss the merger. According to his information, Kelly Wiglesworth and Greg Buis were originally picked to spend the night isolated from the others, drinking wine and eating lobster by candlelight. But the producers wanted people who might fall into bed together, and so, says Lance, they overruled those decisions and substituted Sean Kenniff and Jenna Lewis instead.
Did that affect the outcome? Probably not, but it sure had the potential to do so. Lance notes that Kenniff leaked details about the Tagi alliance -- details that could have been useful if the Pagong members had been more organized. Other decisions made that night could have changed the outcome as well (for example, had they chosen Pagong's beach, it might not have been so easy for Hatch to provide food for the tribe).
But maybe the reader considers that one a little shaky. After all, the producers may not have directly affected the outcome there. What about other times?
Well, the show itself provided evidence of manipulation, as host Jeff Probst would use supposedly secret information in asking pointed questions at Tribal Councils. As Lance says, “Imagine a Monday Night Football game in which Al Michaels was leaking play calls from the Denver Broncos huddle to the Miami Dolphins coaching staff. … Obviously these leaks were meant to spice up play. But could Regis Philbin get away with that kind of coaching on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Not under FCC regs.”
The main accusation comes from Stacey Stillman. Indeed, Stillman provided him with some of the most important information about producer interference, even noting in one e-mail to Lance, “I have info that establishes a nice federal offense [CBS] wouldn't want disclosed and could undermine SII.” What was that information? She later told Lance that Dirk Been relayed to her, “that the morning of the Tribal Council vote, Mark Burnett came to Tagi and pulled him aside with Sean.” She continued, “Burnett suggested that they might want to vote me off.” Who was voted off that day? Stillman. By two votes.
Stillman admits that she can't prove it. “It's hearsay.” But Lance lays out possible explanations and digs deeper into the accusation.
Furthermore, while Lance doesn't specifically address it, Burnett mentions a similar incident in his own book about Survivor, where he quotes a discussion in which a producer caused Gervase to change his play during Episode 9:
“They keep talking about me joining an alliance,” he told producer Jay Bienstock. “But I'm not gonna do that.”
“It's not the way you play the game.”
Jay said nothing.
“It's not the way Gervase plays the game.”
“Is your way working?”
“No,” Gervase replied wearily. He paused. Damn. You're right.” A flash of inspiration played across Gervase's eyes.
And so Gervase altered the way he played “Survivor.” Sidling up to Colleen and Jenna, he joined their fledgling Barbecue Alliance. Though he'd been one of their prime targets, Colleen agreed to take Gervase in if they could all vote Richard off.
It didn't take much, but the producer's question about Gervase's method of play was apparently enough to make him change his mind. Burnett freely admitted to this bit of producer/player interaction, and it is a short step indeed to suggest that it happened in at least one other case, even if that other case involved a bit more bluntness on his part.
Stillman does have a grudge with the production of Survivor, though. She believes that she was misrepresented, showing only her excessive eye-rolling and her nasty side. Lance says he didn't see that type of person when first dealing with her, but it is ironic to note that, later on, she turned on him and seemed to become the stereotypical bitch lawyer she appeared to be on the show. Indeed, she even threatened to sue Lance if he used the information she had previously given to him! Obviously, he was not swayed. As he told this author in e-mail, “There's no way she's going to sue and get under oath on this series. … It would blow the whole thing wide open.”
Lance believes that Stillman may have been frightened by CBS. His attempt to verify the accusations with Dirk Been made him think that CBS may have reigned him in as well. Lance tried to get an answer to these charges from CBS, but only got “CBS declines to comment” in response. Unfortunately, with nobody talking, there is no hard evidence either way, at least for now. But all the smoke makes Lance think there is indeed a fire.
And that fire answers the question of why he wrote the book at all. Some CBS spokespeople have suggested it is the result of “sour grapes” on Lance's part, and others may think he is simply trying to cash in on the Survivor mania he missed when his book with Hatch fell apart. However, it seems to be neither of these. Instead, the old investigative journalist in Lance saw something he could not ignore: a television network had excessive control over the lives of former gameshow contestants. With Survivor's huge success, “reality” shows are guaranteed to become a part of many network lineups. This was not a one-time incident that will soon go away. If his allegations are true and the producers did interfere with the game's outcome, it is certainly likely that it could happen again.
Three books have been published about Survivor. But only one takes a long, hard look at the game's winner and the game itself. If you want more of the same edited-to-make-it-look-like-we-want-it-to-look, read Burnett's book. If you want to see a little of Rich Hatch's history and his “rules” for surviving, read his book. If you want to read the most interesting, well-researched, and well-reported book about Survivor, read The Stingray.
Since the book’s publication, Stacey has indeed sued, but it wasn’t Lance that she sued. It was CBS and Survivor. Read about the lawsuit at Stacey Sues Survivor: Can She Win? and Survivor Lawsuit II: The Empire Strikes Back. Also, make sure to check back here frequently for updates!
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