Once upon a time, the island of reality TV seemed so innocent. Sure, there were snakes and rats. But as long as you avoided bare bottomed backstabbers like Richard Hatch, a telegenic nobody could claim a moment in the spotlight and a shot at the grand prize. All that changed with the March 1 episode of ”Survivor: The Australian Outback.” In a scene that looked more like ”Rescue 911,” pig slaughtering Michigan native Michael Skupin, 38, was airlifted out of the Kucha tribe after a freak campfire accident left him with second degree burns on his hands and forearms. (Skupin later said he was ”miraculously healed” without surgery in only 10 days.)
In the wake of Skupin’s injury, ”Survivor” and its clones may be headed on a crash course toward more extreme, and potentially deadlier, territory. Still to come: Fox will put 16 contestants through ”Boot Camp,” while NBC’s upcoming ”Fear Factor” requires six people each week to confront their primal fears. Even ”Law & Order” has speculated on where this all might lead: Its well timed Feb. 28 episode depicted the rooftop murder of a cast member on a ”Real World” type show that was orchestrated by a ratings hungry network exec.
No, Detective Briscoe hasn’t been called to the outback just yet. But in the quest to goose the drama as well as the ratings (the scorching March 1 ”Survivor” delivered 31.3 million viewers, the series’ largest audience since its post- Super Bowl premiere), are reality shows on the verge of going too far? ”Survivor” exec producer Mark Burnett tells EW that risk is built into his show but insists he thoroughly scouts locations to mitigate real hazards. ”I can’t remove the inherent dangers of nature, but I can make choices that don’t put the contestants in extraordinarily stupid situations.”
Burnett can also make sure any mishaps are caught on tape. As he said in a March 2 press conference following the airlift episode, ”If the cameraman would have been dropping the camera and helping [Skupin], I would have fired the cameraman. The cameraman isn’t a medical person; the cameraman is there to film.” The producer wouldn’t say whether he had shots of the actual accident, but he confirms he had more graphic footage that he declined to air because ”it has no place in the 8 o’clock hour.”
No matter how hazardous these shows may become, from a legal standpoint the networks are as safe as couch potatoes. For the privilege of competing on TV, contestants sign their lives away — literally, since they contractually exempt show producers from any liability for injuries, including ones that result in, gulp, death. ”The fact is that these people volunteer to go on these shows,” says one network attorney. ”Unless you’re introducing a poisonous snake into their sleeping bags, [the network and producers are] on pretty safe ground.”
But with ”Survivor” raising the stakes, how far will producers go to wring out the drama? EW has learned that at least some people who worked on ”Temptation Island” may have known beforehand that the show’s bickering, made for Fox couple, identified only by their first names of Ytossie and Taheed, had a then 18 month old son. Kicked off the show on the fourth episode, the pair was publicly scolded by executive producer Chris Cowan for concealing the toddler’s existence. ”It’d kill me to think this experience would potentially drive a child’s parents apart,” Cowan said.