This morning’s papers reveal that Stacey Stillman, a nonsurviving contestant from the first season of the show, is suing CBS and producer Mark Burnett for supposedly fixing the show’s competition. Or, more correctly, has been suing them: According to CBS, she tried to extract $5 million from them the week before the new season debuted, and before that, she’d been demanding a do-over slot on another CBS show. The offense? Stillman alleges that Burnett privately convinced two other contestants, Dirk Been and Sean Keniff, to vote her off instead of 72-year-old Rudy Boesch, who eventually made the final four.
So Burnett may have done a little lobbying for his favorite contestants, eh? Well, viewers are already beginning to realize that the juiciest parts of Survivor are the ones we never see. (Last week, the New York Post’s “Page Six” printed some giggle-inducing revelations about what Kel was actually doing in the bushes during last week’s episode. His teammates, who thought he was stuffing himself with contraband food, ambushed him, much to everyone’s eventual embarrassment. The footage of the ambush wasn’t used.) And there’s no way of knowing whether what we do see is representative of what happened; surely the reason the show isn’t broadcast in real time is so Burnett’s editors can manipulate their hundreds of hours of raw footage into appropriately gripping story lines, complete with red herrings and dramatic reversals. We may use the term “reality TV”—Burnett prefers “reality drama”— to apply to such ludicrously inauthentic experiences as eating rotisseried rats or being filmed 24 hours a day, but it’s terribly obvious that the only reality is the one that Burnett and his crew engineer. (To be fair, Survivor does approximate the one real-life ritual in which small groups of scantily clad strangers head to the wilderness for two months to eat atrocious food, compete in elaborately planned tournaments, enact ersatz tribal rituals, and ostracize select members of the group. Memo to the next journalist who profiles Mark Burnett: Ask him where he went to summer camp.)
Anyway, Stillman’s accusations—credible or not—should be another triumph for Survivor, not a setback. Mark Burnett, look what you have produced: a contestant who takes the show so seriously that she’s continuing to snipe, plot, and accuse, even when she’s months and thousands of miles away from Palau Tiga! Just imagine what aspiring actress Jerri, Stillman’s successor in shrill self-righteousness, will do once the current season is over—sue CBS for a part on Everyone Loves Raymond? More important, Burnett’s alleged meddling adds a whole new strategic wrinkle to those all-important voting decisions. Competitors may face an agonizing choice between satisfying their teammates and appeasing their producer. Would the latter result in more screen time, more close-ups, more flattering and sympathetic treatment in the editing room? After all, a participant’s chance at the $1 million prize is only one in 16. But if the first season is any indication, the odds of landing endorsements, acting jobs, and speaking gigs is well over 50 percent. So meddle all you want, Mr. Burnett. And Ms. Stillman: If you’d like another shot at reality TV, I know a judge who might help. Most people call her Judy.