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'Survivor' finale overshadowed by Dan Spilo and reality TV's struggle with sexual misconduct

CBS says it has a plan to prevent future incidents, but there remains no solid, universal playbook yet for how accusations are handled in the industry.
Dan Spilo on "Survivor."
Dan Spilo on "Survivor."CBS

Here at the end of this decade, even the most avid watchers of reality television are well aware that the shows that they faithfully follow are not accurate, unimpeded presentations of real events. From slice-of-life shows to competition series, reality TV is crafted and shaped by everyone from the production crew to network executives. On-camera participants rarely have absolute control, especially in shows that feature a new cast every season. And yet when bad things happen — specifically in regard to sexual misconduct — why do cast members seem to carry the responsibility of what comes next, while the wizard stays behind the curtain?

On Wednesday, the 39th season of “Survivor” comes to an end — and many people will be very glad to say goodbye.

On Wednesday, the 39th season of “Survivor” comes to an end — and many people will be very glad to say goodbye. “Survivor”producers and CBS have recently come under fire for their mishandling of Season 39 contestant Dan Spilo, who was accused of inappropriate touching by several female cast members, several instances of which were caught on camera. Spilo was finally cut from the season last week after reportedly touching a crew member without her consent. But why did “Survivor” take so long to remove Spilo in the first place?

In an earlier episode, contestant Kellee Kim spoke up to producers about Spilo’s behavior. During an on-camera interview, she was asked how she wanted his actions to be addressed, and she said that she believed that it could be dealt with through gameplay. Warnings were given to the whole group collectively and to Spilo privately. But while Kim’s opinion as the object of Spilo’s inappropriate touching carries weight, the producer’s decision to let the conflict play out after barely issuing a slap on the wrist failed to acknowledge Kim’s position as a contestant.

“Survivor”is a game of strategy, where every choice and seemingly insignificant conversation can affect the outcome (and the distribution of the $1 million grand prize). Kim ended up being voted off by the tribe that same episode, after two other women exaggerated their claims against Spilo in order to get a leg up on the competition. (Contestants Elizabeth Beisel and Missy Byrd later apologized for this.)

Clearly contestants, who are stressed both from the game and from being filmed every moment of the day, should not be tasked with dealing with an alleged abuser. It was up to the producers to move to protect the cast, just as they would have had someone been accused of physical violence. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter after Kim’s final episode, host and executive producer Jeff Probst defended the show by saying, “This has been 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.”

While Probst shows empathy for Kim and may be open to learning, he also seems to be operating under the flawed assumption that allowing the conflict to play out in the context of the competition is good for everyone involved.

The backlash to the producers’ passiveness, however, indicates that many viewers are weary of this rhetoric about starting conversations. In 2019, no one needs the long-running competition reality series to start a conversation about sexual assault and misconduct. We are bombarded daily with news of similar complaints; every woman watching — and many men — have their own experiences. The idea that Spilo has somehow moved the needle in terms of a broader understanding of gender politics and consent is laughable. All “Survivor's” handling of this situation did was to confirm that predators are still frequently granted the benefit of the doubt and that women who come forward frequently see their trauma downplayed.

Hours before finale aired, Dan Spilo issued an apology, saying he was "deeply sorry for how my actions affected Kellee." CBS now says that it will also change its policies so that on future seasons of "Survivor," there will be "an on-site professional to provide confidential means of reporting concerns, an orientation that involves anti-harassment, unconscious bias and sensitivity training and a new rule that forbids unwelcome physical contact, sexual harassment and impermissible biases," Time magazine reports.

While this is a step in the right direction and it's unrealistic to assume that reality TV can somehow escape the reality of life for many women, there remains no solid, universal playbook yet for how accusations are handled.

In 2017, production on "Bachelor in Paradise" was suspended for the investigation of a reported sexual assault involving cast members Corinne Olympios and Demario Jackson. Fans were left confused by varying recollections of what had occurred between the pair. The complaints had been made by two producers, not Olympios, who told People magazine that, while she was intoxicated during their sexual encounter, she didn’t believe that Jackson was aware of how much she'd had to drink. Jackson maintained throughout that the encounter was consensual, and a third-party firm reviewed footage to determine that there was no misconduct.

But while it appears that the production company and the network did their due diligence with "Bachelor in Paradise," many fans were turned off by the way that the shutdown and the investigation were later used as a marketing tool. The first trailer for the season breathlessly reported that “paradise was almost lost,” positioning a complicated and sensitive topic as so much Twitter fodder. The promo was later pulled from air due to fans’ chilly reception.

Fortunately, "Bachelor in Paradise" stopped short of airing the sexual encounter that prompted the shutdown. Other shows have made more disturbing choices about what to do with their footage. Carlota Prado, a houseguest on the Spanish version of “Big Brother,” was assaulted by another contestant while unconscious and later confronted by producers with the footage. While her assailant was reported to the authorities and ejected from the house, no one put a stop to the attack, and Prado’s reaction was mined for drama and entertainment value. Leaked footage of the confessional in which she was forced to watch her own assault shows a producer telling Prado not to tell anyone else in the house about it. The production company issued an apology after the incident became public.

Starting a conversation is the “thoughts and prayers” of the epidemic of sexual assault as it is framed by reality TV. (One way to actually have a valuable dialogue is to let a survivor lead it and make empowered choices about what they share, as “Bachelor” contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes did this past season, when she told Colton Underwood about her rape and her reporting of it.)

In his Hollywood Reporter interview, Probst said that “'Survivor' is a microcosm for our real world” as a way to justify the choice to keep Spilo in the game. That’s true in the sense that harassment and assault are pervasive elements of our culture, but it disregards the status of "Survivor" as a controlled environment. Reality shows could set an example by taking clear and decisive action in cases like these. But it’s difficult not to take the cynical position that they want to also continue appealing to all audiences — even those who don’t see sexual misconduct as the epidemic that it is.