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.
While Ytossie and Taheed are quick to cite the show’s confidentiality agreement, a source close to the couple insists that someone working on the show must have known about the boy. “I know that she told them she had a child,” recalls a good friend who claims to have been at Ytossie’s apartment when a camera crew filmed her packing for Belize. “They decided it might be cute to include her son. So they put him on camera.” When contacted by EW, Cowan denied he had any knowledge of the child, insisting the pair lied on their applications — which a source close to the duo denies. “It’s possible that someone was in Ytossie’s apartment filming her and the child was there,” says Cowan. Later in the interview, Cowan insists, “I have not seen that material, if it exists, and I do not know if it exists…[but nothing was] seen by us prior to our leaving for the island.” (The producers say they learned of the child from one of the island’s singles after Ytossie allegedly mentioned the boy to him.)
Of course, tinkering with reality is nothing new to the genre. In the first season of MTV’s The Real World, producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray agreed to “throw a pebble into the pond” if the cast’s real-life antics proved lifeless. Bunim recalls that they arranged for a runner-up from cast auditions “to ask one of the girls out on a date. The cast was very uncomfortable with it and we never did it again.” Still, Survivor‘s success has upped the ante. Murray says the next edition of his other MTV show, Road Rules, introduces a new rule: “If the cast fails more than one mission, they have to vote someone out.” (Replacements will be waiting in the wings.)
Tossing pebbles becomes trickier for shows like Survivor and The Mole that offer cash prizes, since they may be subject to federal regulations enacted after the late-’50s quiz-show scandals. In an introduction to Survivor 1‘s video compilation taped last fall, Burnett states: “There are FCC rules…since [the] quiz-show problems of the ’50s. As a prize-giving show, technically we fall under game-show rules. Nothing was allowed to be staged.” The producer and CBS now deny that the rules apply to Survivor, and one former FCC official says that unlike traditional game shows a la Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Survivor and its ilk “are more entertainment than contests.” An FCC spokesman says the agency has received no complaints, thus plans no inquiry.
The FCC aside, Survivor has become a favorite target of critics. Last month, PETA charged that producers planted the wild boar that appeared near the Kucha camp to prompt Skupin’s Lord of the Flies moment. (“There was a giant forest fire and it flushed the animals their way,” responds Burnett. “There were tons of pigs.” Skupin adds that it took him three unaired days of chasing the piglet to bring home the bacon.) And litigious larvae-eater Stacey Stillman filed a lawsuit last month alleging that Burnett persuaded tribemates Sean Kenniff and Dirk Been to oust her instead of crotchety ex-Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch from the first series. CBS and Burnett’s SEG Inc. later filed a countersuit, charging Stillman with breach of contract, defamation, and extortion. (On her answering machine, Stillman says, “This is not about money, because Mark should have to answer for his actions.”)
For his part, Burnett denies Survivor is rotten to the Ogakor. But he does cop to orchestrating some of the drama. “Whether it’s not giving them enough food or causing a moral dilemma by giving them chickens, it’s contrived,” he says. “But the outcome is very, very real. They can keep the chickens for eggs, make pets out of them, or eat them. It just so happens we had one vegetarian, which was great. We don’t tell them what to do.”