Dateline NBC Revisits Survivor Manipulation Allegationsby David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
Last week, Dateline NBC revisited its earlier story on the questions raised about Survivor manipulation by executive producer Mark Burnett. This new story, only a couple weeks after the original, was sparked by the release of Dirk Been’s testimony about what had happened on the island and since. While it was not terribly informative for those of us who have been following this story on a daily basis, it helped to bring the updated news to those who might not have otherwise known about it.
Unfortunately, Dateline made several errors in their presentation of the story. While they correctly noted that Dirk “seems to have nothing to gain by criticizing the hit show,” they then went on to say that Stacey Stillman, who filed suit against the show and CBS has asked for five million dollars. This is simply untrue. The CBS/Survivor countersuit is asking that amount from Stacey, not the other way around. She is asking for a much smaller amount for herself – to cover costs she says she incurred from the show – and for an undetermined larger amount to compensate viewers who thought they were watching reality.
They do correctly point out that because Dirk doesn’t have anything riding on this, his testimony and letter to Burnett definitely makes things interesting. And then, in talking again to investigative reporter Peter Lance, author of The Stingray (see our full review of that book), Lance repeats that Dirk is a very believable witness. But even in that segment with Lance, where he talks about the problems with a producer pulling strings and acting like a behind-the-scenes puppet-master, Dateline once again brings up suggestions that Lance is doing this all because he bears a grudge against CBS for killing his planned book with winner Rich Hatch. How long is that going to be a focus? Lance is a professional journalist who broke this story and has been following it ever since. He did not plant these ideas in Dirk’s or Stacey’s head. He did not somehow create the influence that Burnett is alleged to have had. Either Burnett interfered or he did not, and the answer to that question has nothing to do with who happens to be doing the investigating.
In any event, Dateline notes that they wanted to have Mark Burnett or at least some official CBS representative on to talk about the charges. CBS turned ‘em down flat. In the closing of this segment, we find out that CBS went so far as to criticize NBC for even investigating this matter!
Dateline reviews the CBS press release, which they note had a rather different take on the matter. That’s one way to say it – I call it massive spin that ignores reality. But, hey, I’m probably a little more blunt than these guys.
Still, I’m not the only one who sees it that way. Dateline interviewed a television reporter from the Los Angeles Times, who came to the same conclusion I had – influence and manipulation are pretty much interchangeable terms in this case. He says if a producer talked to the contestants and tried to steer their vote, that clearly amounts to manipulation. I think most people would agree – well, unless they work for CBS, I guess.
Dateline then explains why all of this is potentially important, by reminding us of the quiz show scandal of the 1950s. The FCC set up rules to keep producers from meddling in game shows. As Lance says, if the producer is influencing the show, it’s an FCC violation. But the L.A. Times reporter notes that the FCC is taking a more hands-off approach currently, and probably has bigger fish to fry that allegations of interference in Survivor. While I understand this sentiment, I think it’s really sending the wrong signals. Those laws are in place for a reason, and to say that they aren’t going to bother enforcing the laws essentially gives free reign for Burnett – or anybody else – to do whatever he pleases. If they aren’t going to be enforced, the FCC should just end the charade and remove the regulations altogether, so everybody knows that it’s okay once again for producers to mess around with the outcome of game shows.
Getting off my soap box and back to the Dateline segment, the show next revisited the fact that the six other Tagi tribe members have publicly sided with Burnett. The problem with this, as I mentioned in my article about Dirk’s testimony – and as Dateline did not address – is that they were not necessarily privy to any discussions Burnett might have had privately. So their testimony that they were not influenced doesn’t really mean anything with regard to Dirk’s claim.
But the big question, as Dateline notes, is whether this will all matter to viewers. The L.A. Times reporter says it probably won’t. He says viewers are smart enough to know what they are getting on Survivor, and the know that they like it. Well, I disagree. Some viewers might think, “Eh, it’s all fixed but who cares,” but I personally know a number of fans who are convinced everything is on the up-and-up (no, these people do not also believe in the veracity of professional wrestling). They actually have confidence that Burnett couldn’t do what has been alleged and get away with it.
Other people just don’t care one way or the other, as the reporter noted. Indeed, Dateline went on to say that if entertainment is the key to success, Survivor does that. And, even if the show is closer to professional wrestling than to reality, it looks like people will still watch and enjoy it. This is, to me, perhaps the most depressing thing of all.
In closing the segment, Dateline noted that, as mentioned earlier, CBS released a statement criticizing NBC for covering this controversy because it is about a successful show on a competing network. Yeah, and? This has got to be the most ridiculous thing CBS has said throughout this entire debate – even taking into account their over-spun press release that made it seem like Dirk’s testimony somehow supported them. These are serious allegations and I would expect the news media to cover it. If CBS is suggesting that no other TV network can cover them because of conflict of interest, what are we to do? Should we expect that CBS will cover it themselves? I’m sure they’ll get the 60 Minutes crews right to work on that. Please.
So, like I said, not a whole lot new here – other than the additional ridiculous statements from CBS, of course. The fact that a major network’s news show has dedicated two different segments to this is promising for perhaps getting people to notice what has been going on. But it still seems like the vast majority of people – even dedicated fans of the show – are content to just ignore the situation while they wait for Survivor III to begin. Personally, I’d like to know if this reality show will actually be real.
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If you would like to watch the entire Dateline segment, you can find it in RealPlayer format on SurvivorNews.net.