reality tv

How Could Survivor Have Screwed Up This Badly?

It took 36 days after Survivor contestant Kellee Kim first complained about Dan Spilo’s unwanted touching for production to act. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS

“Two hours of riveting Survivor.” That’s how host and showrunner Jeff Probst teased two early November episodes, which included a clear, unambiguous illustration of sexual harassment and its fallout. Probst’s expectation that the audience would find repeated unwanted touching, gaslighting, and the literal silencing of a victim to be “riveting” is just part of the tsunami of real-life horror that’s swept over Survivor in its 39th season.

On Wednesday night this week, viewers learned that Dan Spilo had been ejected from the game because of an “incident” that was not filmed. The ejection was long overdue: It took 36 days after a Survivor contestant, Kellee Kim, first complained about Dan’s unwanted touching for the production to actually do something to protect its cast members. It’s almost as if Survivor, MGM Television, and CBS set out to demonstrate how institutions and people in power fail when dealing with charges of misconduct, because they’ve done nothing but fail all season long, damaging real people’s lives and the franchise itself.

We only know what’s been broadcast, but that’s quite a lot. Starting with the very first episode, the show’s camera operators filmed what other players referred to as “inappropriate touching”: Dan draping his arm across a woman’s leg at night, putting his hand on Missy Byrd’s leg while she was talking to someone else, touching Kellee’s face and hair. Kellee repeatedly asked Dan to not touch her, and yet he continued to do so on multiple occasions, and Survivor continued to do nothing. The crew filmed as some contestants joked about Dan’s touching; they filmed as Missy assured Kellee she was not alone in being the recipient of unwanted physical contact. “When I first got here, Dan was like, super-kind and super-helpful, but then one night, the hands were wandering,” she told Kellee. “It’s a game so I’m assuming nobody would want to say something, because you don’t want to make a scene.”

After that conversation with Missy, Kellee broke down in a confessional interview with an unseen producer, and the show broke the fourth wall to give us his response: “If there are issues, to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that it stops. I don’t want anyone feeling uncomfortable,” the producer said. That “if” is unconscionable: That conversation happened three weeks after Kellee first said she felt uncomfortable, and after the unwanted touching — and the filming of it — continued.

Survivor did do something then, but with baffling inadequacy. Producers met with players, off camera, and on-screen text informed TV audiences that “producers met privately with Dan, at which time he was issued a warning for his behavior.” The specifics of the warning were never explained, and the meeting was so ineffective that the players had no idea what it was about. One contestant, Aaron Meredith, told Parade it was “a very vague blanket statement telling me if I ever felt unsafe, I should let production know.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Probst told the L.A. Times that the multimillion dollar production behind Survivor just didn’t know what to do. “The biggest question centered around whether or not Dan’s unwanted touching, that made some of the women uncomfortable, was enough to warrant pulling him from the game,” he said. “From our point of view, there was no clear answer.”

After an off-camera “incident” during this week’s episode — which “did not involve another player,” as a title card said — the show finally took action, pulling Dan from the game. Since contestants would not interact with anyone else during filming, whatever happened probably involved a member of the show’s crew. No crew members have come forward with accusations against Dan, and the production has yet to explain what the “incident” was.

The Survivor rules and cast contract make it explicitly clear that “harming, or threatening harm to, other contestants or crew members” is grounds for ejection — though it also gives producers the ability to remove any player for any reason. And reality-TV producers, especially in competition shows, control 100 percent of the environment in which the game is played. Of course, they shouldn’t interfere with game play. But they do regularly intervene for safety reasons: Survivor has involuntarily removed players from the game 15 times for medical reasons. Why was this case treated differently? CBS said “the production will intervene in situations where warranted.” Yet it did not intervene, for nearly the entire season. How could Survivor have screwed up this badly?

The answer may be in something that happened ten years ago, when Probst tried to quit Survivor. As he told the New York Times, “My Achilles’ heel for a lot of my life was that nobody saw me as a storyteller, that they saw me as a white guy with dark hair who was just a game-show host. And that, in terms of my own self-image, was the thing that could gut me.” Survivor fans, TV critics, and the Television Academy saw Jeff Probst as one of reality-TV’s best hosts, but that wasn’t enough. He became showrunner, and now his ego is in control, prioritizing being a “storyteller” above all else, and that’s directly affected the people who make the show possible: its cast and crew.

The way Probst has repeatedly framed what happened this season illustrates his priority: story first, with real people whose real lives are affected as stand-ins for big themes. After Kellee first spoke out in November, he described the season so far as “one of Survivor’s most compelling and socially relevant seasons of all time. […] Tonight, the entire two hours centered around the seismic shift that is taking place in our culture regarding how men and women relate to and respect each other. This is not unique to SurvivorSurvivor is a microcosm for our real world. Situations just like this one are playing out in offices and bars and colleges across the country and the world.”

Let’s hope that in offices and bars and colleges, people in authority would respond to clear, filmed evidence of unwanted touching immediately and unequivocally. If Probst really wants his show to be “relevant,” and for his storytelling to affect change, he could start by taking responsibility for its own complicity in what happened to his cast and crew. Dan was responsible for the unwanted touching, but by failing to act, Jeff Probst and Survivor wrote this story.

How Could Survivor Have Screwed Up This Badly?