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Reality faked out

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

IIs there anyone alive who will really be all that shocked and amazed if it turns out that the producer of the “Survivor” shows on CBS did a certain amount of manipulation of the contestants so as to affect the outcome? To be shocked by this kind of news, you probably have to believe that Keebler cookies really are made by elves.
When one thinks of the millions and millions of dollars at stake, the huge sensation that the “Survivor” phenomenon became, the fact that CBS Entertainment has been playing particularly strenuous hardball this season in the highly competitive arena of prime-time network television, and that CBS seems to leave the producer of “Survivor” pretty much on his own in isolated locales while the show is being made-all these factors would appear to make some kind of creative interference by the producer virtually inevitable, or at least extremely hard for the producer to resist.
Right now a huge firefight is going on with CBS and its lawyers and producer Mark Burnett and his lawyers on one side and investigative reporter Peter Lance, author of a book attacking “Survivor,” on the other. Lance is using his Web site, thestingray.net, to launch attacks on the credibility of Burnett and thus of “Survivor.”
Calling “Survivor” a “reality show” has always seemed a stretch of the word since it’s really a heavily edited game show. The various paces through which contestants are put are then themselves put through a high-tech post-production machine and hours of selective editing that obviously affect how each person comes across on the air.
The war between Lance and CBS was set in motion when Stacey Stillman, an early loser in the first “Survivor” series in the summer of 2000, filed a lawsuit charging Burnett with rigging her ouster from the island where the first series took place. Burnett promptly countersued, and there’s been a pitched battle going on ever since. Burnett and CBS seem to be getting the benefit of the doubt in a lot of the media coverage, as if reporters are afraid it will just ruin everybody’s fun if it turns out that the reality of “Survivor” isn’t really very real at all.
It’d be like carnivorous birdies attacking a children’s birthday party and popping all those lovely balloons.
My feeling is that people who fell for “Survivor” pretty much deserve what they get. The thing struck me as contrived and suspect from the beginning. It’s a game show that asks you to take a great deal on faith. Burnett further muddied his own waters with such insatiably greedy gimmicks as working in as many sponsor tie-ins and product placements as he could. CBS may have given Burnett an excessive amount of autonomy and failed to police the show as rigorously as it should have.
Certainly the deposition given by another “Survivor” contestant, Dirk Been, suggests hanky-panky afoot. However it also suggests Mr. Been is something of an idiot, or at least not particularly adept in the use of the English language. Been seems to be saying that Burnett “influenced” the outcome of the game and yet does not think Burnett is guilty of “manipulation” of the game. But, duh, aren’t those two things pretty much synonymous?
Been: “Regarding Stacey and through other incidents, other things that happened throughout the game … The production staff, and in particular the producers, were involved in the game in such a manner that to me it seemed that maybe there was manipulation or that-I don’t know if manipulation is the right word, but there was influence, that’s what I would say. That-and that they were trying to program things in a certain way and-and they had an idea how the game should go, instead of just actually what happened.”
Burnett has sworn that “at no point during the production of `Survivor’ did I or any other producer, staff member or crew member ever direct any of the participants to vote for or against a particular participant, or attempt to manipulate, coerce, induce, intimidate or influence the participants’ voting.”
But Stillman’s suit alleges that Burnett urged two teammates, one of them Been, to vote her off the show so that popular Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch could stay on. Been said, “Instead of doing what I thought was right, I had voted Rudy-or voted against Stacey directly because of the influence of Mark Burnett … and at that point it began to come clear to me that maybe what Mark was doing didn’t have the best intentions in mind.”
Been there, done that?
Maybe Been could get a job as a speechwriter for George Bush. But he’s instead pursuing some sort of performing career in Hollywood-trying, like other “Survivor” contestants, to parlay that 15 minutes, or even five minutes, of fame into something longer-lasting and, of course, more lucrative.
Stillman’s motives don’t seem to be particularly pure, either. Burnett’s company, Survivor Entertainment Group (SEG), charged that before filing her suit she demanded millions in shut-up money from the network. Stillman’s response: “Trying to settle this dispute privately without going through this isn’t a crime.” But then she does go on to make a salient point: “Manipulating a game show is a crime. They are attempting to take the focus away from what Mark Burnett did.”
So far, there’s been very little coverage of any of this on network newscasts. The syndicated tabloid shows may have done some reporting on it. I guess it’d be naive to expect “60 Minutes” to look into the possible wrongdoing. And if the “60 Minutes” boys did do a segment on Burnett and found him not guilty, who would believe them?
Already Burnett has admitted that stunt doubles were used in one sequence on the second “Survivor,” set in the Australian Outback, and passed off to viewers as the actual contestants. Meanwhile over at NBC, that network’s snotty-ass game show “Weakest Link” contained a segment on the premiere that, the closing credits admitted, had been re-enacted by the contestants because of a technical problem when it was taped. Oops!
We’ve all seen the game-show disclaimer: “Portions of the competition not affecting the outcome were edited prior to air,” or something along those lines.
But when you get right down to it, any game show that doesn’t air live is asking viewers to suspend disbelief and put a huge amount of trust in the producers. It’s a bit like putting a ventriloquist on the radio. Or doing “magic” tricks on film. The possibilities for deception are almost infinite, and they seem to get greater with each new advance in the technologies of deceit-“special effects,” as it were.
I never got caught up in “Survivor” fever because I thought those poor shnooks looked ridiculous prancing around in their shorts and getting together for “tribal council” and staring solemnly ahead while that idiot host put their torches out and sent them home. What juvenile junk.
Something tells me that even if Burnett and CBS come out of the lawsuits covered in egg, and Lance reveals them all to have pulled a gigantic fast one, they’ll do another “Survivor” anyway. And people will watch and the next day at the water cooler they’ll gossip about this contestant or that one, the way they’d chatter about characters in a prime-time soap opera-which is really the genre that “Survivor” belongs to.
We must remember that when Lincoln said you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, television was still a century away. If only he’d known.