Dateline's Survivor Story: How Real Is Real?by David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
Dateline NBC is known for its “survivor” stories about people placed in dangerous situations who then manage to pull through them. But last night may have been the show’s first Survivor story. In particular, it focused on the allegations of former Survivor contestant Stacey Stillman, and featured her first prime-time interview since she filed her lawsuit against Survivor and CBS.
The story was a timely one, as Survivor’s executive producer, Mark Burnett, just admitted last week that he faked part of the reality show by using body double to re-shoot various scenes. Also, investigative reporter Peter Lance, author of The Stingray (see here for our full review), has filed a motion to unseal Dirk Been’s testimony in that suit and a decision could come this week. All of this raises the question of just how real reality TV actually is.
Most of the show contained information which is probably not all that new to regular readers of this site. However, it marks the first time a prime-time network news show has taken these allegations seriously. Dateline interviewed Stacey, Peter Lance, and Sean Kenniff for this piece – Mark Burnett turned down an interview request.
We begin with Stacey, who says she had two separate experiences on Survivor – the one she actually lived through on the island and the one she watched on television. She says a product was sold to the public as pure reality, but that’s not what was actually going on. Furthermore, she later found out from Dirk that Mark Burnett had supposedly suggested that he vote for Stacey instead of Rudy Boesch. This revelation was first revealed in Lance’s The Stingray and formed the basis for her later lawsuit.
Dateline showed parts of the 10-page agreement a contestant must sign to appear on Survivor. Among the portions they highlighted were that the game’s rules may be changed, modified, or amended by the producer at any time. The producer can remove or replace contestants at any time. The producer can reveal factual or fictional information about the contestants. This all may just be legal protection, but it also gives Burnett the leeway to do almost anything he wants.
Peter Lance is introduced as he asks what the value of a game is where the rules can change at the whim of the producer? With all the things that went on behind the scenes, Lance says we are forced to wonder if Survivor is too good to be true.
Dateline shows some of the Survivor call sheets that Lance got from his mole inside the production. These give hour-by-hour information on where the cameras and production teams are supposed to be. As Lance notes, there is very little left to chance.
But Dateline also brings up those who suggest Lance has an axe to grind because of the book deal he had lined up with Survivor I winner Rich Hatch – until the producers killed it by refusing permission. Lance says it’s not about revenge, but is about what is or isn’t real on the biggest game show in history.
Dateline then shows some of the Survivor-related websites, including SurvivorFever.net (the only one I recognized) and said that some freeze-frame shots indicate that one contestant appears to have been awarded a win in a challenge during Survivor II when he shouldn’t have gotten it. This referred to the incident when Colby took both hooks off the rope maze after being told that one must stay on at all times, but Dateline didn’t go into specifics.
Discussing what Burnett has said in the past week, they repeat his claims that he doesn’t do anything to affect the game but does make cosmetic changes, such as when he admitted using body doubles to reshoot some scenes. But Dateline says reshoots seem to be standard operating procedure in some reality shows. For example, MSNBC cameras were allowed to shoot behind the scenes at last year’s Big Brother and caught on tape an incident when producers prearranged a supposedly surprise visit. There is even a shot of one participant asking if she is supposed to be surprised or not, and being told that it is a complete shock to her. This is reality?
They note that other game shows edit for time and the like, such as ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or their own network’s The Weakest Link, but they put on a disclaimer at the end noting this. Survivor does not. (Dateline should have pointed to The Mole as a better example of a show more similar to Survivor which also put such a note at the end of each show.)
They also talk about how government rules – dating back to the “21” scandal decades ago – regulate how a game show must be played. That old scandal haunts some of the questions being raised now about Survivor. Indeed, Stacey says she thinks people should be outraged that Burnett manipulated the game and sold it to the public as if it actually happened that way.
As noted earlier, Burnett turned down an interview request with Dateline, but they note that they have worked with him before in covering Eco-Challenge races and they never saw any instances of him rigging any part of those contests. (Well whoop-de-do. That really doesn’t say much of anything.) They also note that his response to Stacey’s lawsuit claims he did nothing wrong and never told anybody how to vote except to vote their consciences.
Stacey contradicts this in what appears to be a brand new piece of information. She says she saw Burnett manipulating people when he spoke to the jury before the final vote of Survivor I. She claims he dropped in statements like “Rich played the game better” at least three times but then said he was not telling people how to vote. She claims she stood up and said he had done just that.
As I said, this appears to be brand new information – I don’t recall having ever heard it before. And it brings up new questions. For one, what was Stacey doing with the jury while he discussed voting with them? For another, why haven’t we heard this before, since it seems to be such an obvious occurrence of just what she has been claiming regarding his interference? Right now, we don’t have the answers to these questions.
But one of Stacey’s former tribe-mates, Sean Kenniff, says that she is wrong. He insists that nobody from the show schemed with him or told him who to vote for – this contradicts what Stacey has said Dirk Been told her. Six contestants from the first Survivor have filed court declarations supporting Burnett. Dirk’s deposition has been sealed, and could be the most revealing if the courts agree with Lance’s motion to open it up. When Dateline asked Stacey why the other six filed those declarations in support of Burnett, she didn’t really have much of an answer, other than to say that people want to say something when you put a microphone in front of them, and to also note that they are all pursuing careers in Hollywood. Indeed, the fact that six of the 16 support Burnett doesn’t really say much to me. What about the others? Furthermore, if they weren’t privy to conversations between Burnett and one or two others, how does that show anything? (Obviously, if what Stacey says about his talk to the jury is correct, that would open things up a bit more.)
I also wish Dateline would have taken a look at Burnett’s own book about the first series (a full review of which can be found here). As I noted when I first reviewed it, there is a passage in which Burnett writes about Gervase talking to a producer about how to vote, and we see him change his mind in the course of that discussion. It’s not quite as blatant as what Stacey is alleging, but it does show that producers had an effect on the play of the game.
In a bit of a side-issue, Sean says everybody’s personalities were exaggerated for the show. He says they couldn’t have been more obvious characters if they had been wearing Disney costumes. This is all true and is allowed by the contract the players signed. But it really doesn’t have anything to do with the allegations of producer interference.
Jeff from Survivor II also makes an appearance, saying that whatever Burnett did to clean up the show doesn’t change the outcome. He didn’t change who won the challenges or anything like that. Really, Jeff? Apparently you haven’t been following the websites that discuss how the rules apparently changed during the plate-shooting challenge, when host Jeff Probst said it was the last person with an intact plate who would win, but then ignored that when Colby had a half-broken plate left and Elisabeth had a whole plate. Colby ended up shooting down her plate and winning the challenge in apparent contradiction to the rules that were laid out.
So, the Dateline reporter wonders, why is Lance so caught up in this? It’s only a game show, not a news documentary. Yes, says Lance, but people watch it and believe that the it is real. If it’s staged or fraud, the network should be forced to admit it. Stacey further notes that she went through a lot on that show and after it, and she would have liked to know ahead of time that it wasn’t as real as Burnett claimed. She says he violated her trust.
The segment closes by noting that whether these allegations affect reality shows in general will be decided not in the court room, but in the living room, when people decide what they want to watch. This much is true, but whatever the courts have to say may play a large role in helping people to make that decision.
After the segment, Dateline host Stone Philips says that a CBS spokesman called the allegations an insult to those who went through the difficult task of surviving on the shows. Really? I would think that the insult comes from Mark Burnett if the allegations are true. Because if they did go through it all and he really was playing around behind the scenes, they should be insulted at having been told it would be a fair game.
As I indicated earlier, not much of this is new to people who have been following these accusations. But we should keep our eyes on Stacey’s newest addition to her story and also on the courts in hopes that they side with Lance and open up Dirk’s testimony.
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