Who Should Cover the Survivor Scandal?by David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
Should Dateline NBC have reported on the controversy surrounding rival network CBS’s hit show, Survivor? Well, CBS certainly doesn’t think so. But maybe they’re just a teensy bit biased.
As a quick background, Dateline had a segment on Stacey Stillman’s lawsuit against CBS, including interviews with Stacey and investigative reporter Peter Lance, who authored The Stingray which in large part revealed and addressed Stacey’s allegations (click here for our full review of The Stingray). Dateline asked CBS or Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett to appear for rebuttal, but were turned down flat. Still, they went out of their way to discuss the axe that Stacey might have to grind, and even mentioned that some people question Lance’s motives because he lost out on a book deal about Survivor when producers put the kibosh on his and winner Rich Hatch’s plans. The show went even further by noting that NBC had worked previously with Burnett on his Eco-Challenge show and had never seen him do anything improper there.
Still, CBS wasn’t happy. They were even less happy when Dateline ran a follow-up segment after Dirk Been’s testimony was released. At the end of that segment, Dateline summarized a CBS statement that criticized NBC for even covering the controversy about a show on a competing network. Apparently, though, CBS still wasn’t satisfied with that.
According to an L.A. Times article of June 9, the statement that CBS had issued for Dateline to read said: “This is the second time in a month that NBC News has decided to focus on criticism of a competing show, one that has changed the network landscape in a way that could affect NBC’s economic performance on a night it previously dominated until this show came along.”
For their part, Dateline said that it’s a legitimate news story. Indeed, CBS is right about Survivor being the biggest show of the year. So isn’t it newsworthy when accusations like this are flying around – especially when some of those accusations have been backed up by sworn testimony? Apparently CBS thinks such things should be ignored. I sure hope their news department doesn’t follow this line of thinking and ignore news just because it affects somebody in the “competition.”
Besides, if NBC news can’t cover it, who can? CBS news hasn’t even mentioned it as far as I can tell. If no other television news can touch the story, we are left with newspapers and the Web. But even there, we have potential conflicts. The Chicago Tribune, for example, is owned by the same people who own WGN and part of the WB network. Many magazines and Web news outlets are similarly owned by corporations who have their fingers in the TV industry. So who does CBS want to cover the story?
The answer, of course, is “nobody.” CBS would prefer that the whole story just go away. They tried to ignore it when The Stingray first came out. They continued trying to ignore it when Stacey filed her suit, brushing it off in interviews. They tried to pretend that Dirk’s testimony wasn’t damaging before it was revealed. They released that testimony at the beginning of a holiday weekend in the hopes that it would be ignored or forgotten, or at least buried. Then they put out their own press release making it sound like he supported them, apparently in hopes that reporters would just quote from their release and not bother to read the 205-page transcript for themselves. Their entire strategy has been built around doing everything they can to sweep this under the rug.
So it’s no wonder they’re upset that Dateline is covering the story. It’s not surprising that they are trying to impugn their motives rather than discussing the factual assertions made in the stories. None of these actions are unexpected, but they are somewhat depressing.
All of this is further loaded with irony because of earlier allegations that CBS would cut off other entertainment magazines or shows from Survivor news and inside information if they even reported the allegations when The Stingray first came out. Peter Lance discusses in that book how he was uninvited from appearing on a show for this very reason. Now Lance is in more demand, but the fact remains that CBS and Survivor used the popularity of the show as leverage to try to keep these allegations from being publicized. Now they are using that same popularity as a reason why NBC should not cover the show.
Certainly, we cannot say that there was no ulterior motive for Dateline’s coverage of the Survivor scandal. But, as noted earlier, they went out of their way to cover it objectively. CBS, however, has gone out of their way to ignore that objectivity and, indeed, all of the allegations. In the end, they come off looking like children who got their hands caught in the cookie jar, and started yelling that the people who caught them never had the right to be in the kitchen to begin with.
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