CBS and Survivor Entertainment Group faced the second legal loss in two weeks as a major portion of their suit against Stacey Stillman was tentatively dismissed on Monday. An analysis of the situation suggests that CBS may want to re-evaluate their legal strategy.
Monday’s court decision in the case involving suits and counter-suits between CBS/Survivor Entertainment Group (SEG) and ex-contestant Stacey Stillman appears to be a major setback for the television network. So says investigative reporter Peter Lance, who attended the hearing as part of his ongoing coverage of the Survivor story.
Lance, author of The Stingray, where the “rigging” allegations first appeared (click here for our full review), had previously been subpoened by CBS and SEG to attend a two day deposition in the case, but last week CBS suddenly took the deposition “off calendar” after Lance and his attorney, Jeff Feldman, sent lawyers for the network a 14-page memo objecting to CBS’s 13-page subpoena as overly broad and in violation of California’s Shield Law and The First Amendment.
“They went from demanding testimony and a revelation of confidential sources to dropping the deposition off the calendar,” said Lance. “They folded like a cheap suit.” Monday’s court setback was the second for CBS and SEG in less than a week.
The hearing in L.A. Superior Court dealt specifically with the suits filed by Stillman and CBS/SEG. Judge Ralph Dau tentatively threw out CBS/SEG claims that Stillman violated her Survivor contract and confidentiality agreement. It is expected that his final ruling will match the one issued Monday.
In an interview with RealityNewsOnline following the hearing, Lance pointed out how far Stillman’s case and credibility have come since she originally filed the suit. At that time, most of the press focused on her in a negative light, often claiming that she was doing it because she had an axe to grind or that she was simply a bitch, which is how she was portrayed in the few episodes of Survivor on which she appeared before being voted off.
Then CBS released Dirk Been’s sworn testimony, who had nothing to gain nor any axe to grind. In fact, he had filed a motion to keep his deposition sealed because he felt it could hurt him in Hollywood. The work of Lance and Feldman in filing a motion to unseal that deposition led to its release – though even then CBS tried to spin events so the testimony would not seem as damaging.
And now the judge is throwing out crucial parts of the CBS/SEG case and verbally sparring with the CBS/SEG lawyer about rigging, asking White, “So [Burnett] can rig it any way he wanted?” in response to White’s claim that the Survivor contract gives Burnett “complete control and unfettered discretion.”
While Judge Dau did not dismiss the charges that Stillman defamed Survivor by saying it was rigged, his attitude in court on Monday suggests that he is not necessarily friendly towards that allegation. Stillman’s attorneys are hopeful that those charges will be dismissed on reconsideration of Been’s testimony.
Overall, Lance called Monday’s decisions a “major setback” for CBS and SEG. Indeed, he suggested that “CBS might want to reconsider their legal counsel in this case.” (Readers may recall that not only does Lance have five Emmys for investigative journalism, but a law degree as well.) He said many of the stumbles in recent weeks have been the result of “bad lawyering.” In addition, he said they have “redefined the word ‘overreaction’” in some of these decisions. Stillman filed a $75,000 suit against CBS/SEG, and they hit back with a $5 million counter. To counter Lance’s revelations, they launched the 13-page subpoena against him to reveal confidential information, as mentioned earlier. Indeed, they were also seeking all of the research material that went into the writing of The Stingray as well as financial information related to the book. CBS went even further and attacked Dateline NBC for daring to even cover the story. All of these things raise a question in Lance’s mind: “What do they have to hide?” Why did they launch an all-out attack on Stillman? Why are they ignoring the evidence provided by Been’s sworn testimony?
Furthermore, Lance said CBS is now embracing the position that Survivor is not a game show. As noted on Lance’s website, executive producer Mark Burnett had last year told a USA Today chat that “This show does fall under game show rules.” However, he conveniently changed his tune earlier this year by telling the Chicago Tribune, “It’s not a game show. It doesn’t even closely fall under game-show rules.” Lance wonders why CBS is now taking this position – unless they are worried about Stillman’s allegations being true.
“The original Applicant’s Agreement signed by the 16 castaways describes Survivor as ‘a contest’ and the castaways as ‘contestants,’” said Lance. “In the official CBS DVD of highlights for Survivor I, Burnett goes on camera and says, in so many words, that Survivor is a game show subject to FCC regulation. Why are they now taking the exact opposite position, unless they’re worried that being subject to FCC game show regs could get them in trouble? These are all valid questions that any journalist should be asking about the most popular game show in history.”
Certainly when it comes to court decisions, it’s hard to know for sure what the outcome will be. Just a few months ago nobody could have predicted the impact of Been’s testimony. But Judge Dau’s attitude towards the CBS/SEG attorney was definitely not favorable towards their case. Indeed, CBS and SEG may have to start thinking about whether they want to consider settling or if they want to press on with their case, having attorneys and the judge tossing around the word “rigging” numerous times while the media passes along every allegation to the public that has made the show such a hit.
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