Survivor contestants say producers gave them fire, food

Survivor One World debuts tonight on CBS, with tribes living together from day one for the first time ever. Between seasons, there’s been a version of the show playing out at Northwestern University, where students are learning about reality television and using Survivor as a template for the class, including organizing students in tribes which can earn immunity from the midterm.

In the course’s syllabus, professor Max Dawson writes that it “examines the history, reception, and influence of one of [reality TV's] defining examples,” noting that the show’s “ongoing success makes it an ideal starting point for a critical examination of the American television industry’s new reality.” (Full disclosure: I’ll be speaking to the class later this month.)

Last Thursday, several cast members–including Stephen Fishbach, Kelly Goldsmith, Mookie Lee, and John Cochran spoke to the class and had some fun, as Dawson had Cochran draw a rock, for example. But in their conversation with the class, they detailed some truly surprising examples of producers’ impact on their lives and game.

They are surprising to me because the contestants actually admitted these things in public, when the show has been pretty good about controlling its cast and press, and because while it takes place in an obviously artificial context, Survivor maintains an exceptionally high standard that few other shows even attempt. I roll my eyes at people who dismiss the show as fake, because everything from the hunger to the challenges to the environment are very real, but there’s apparently a lot of what amounts to cheating–the audience and other contestants–on the periphery. And that’s very disappointing.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports on those revelations, some of which we’ve known for a while, such as that aerial shots of contestants during challenges are of the Dream Team, and that producers select contestants’ clothes for them (that’s even in the contract). The latest example: Cochran never owned a sweater vest until the show made him wear one. “The lady on the phone said, ‘Justin Timberlake wears sweater vests,’” he told the class.

It’s no surprise that producers cast people to fill certain roles and to make sure the cast is diverse, but Survivor usually seems to do that more organically than other shows. But perhaps they’re just better at concealing it and editing it than, say, Big Brother‘s producers, who do a ham-fisted job of it. Anyway, Kelly Goldsmith told the class that she basically switched roles during casting and still got cast, so the producers were clearly less interested in authenticity than in a type.

Once they did get cast, contestants said that votes are entirely up to contestants, but the Sun-Times account of the class noted that “the show’s alumni acknowledged that producers often chatted with them before a vote, suggesting hypothetical scenarios like, ‘What if you did x, y and z?’ … [that] sometimes planted ideas in their heads and got them thinking differently.” That’s not too disturbing to me, only because a good producer will ask questions about different angles to make sure there’s footage to use of the cast member explaining their rationale. But questions could conceivably be used to manipulate the game.

Most damning of all were the cast members’ examples about how food and fire were given to them. Survivor Tocantins cast member Erinn Lobdell said that while she was on Exile Island, a sound engineer gave her a single piece of butterscotch candy–and a camera operator lit a fire for her with a lighter. “The producer was gone … and the camera man set down his camera, took out his lighter and lit the fire,” she said.

And others confirmed that fires weren’t started by them; Kelly Goldsmith said her tribe got matches (presumably, that was not as a reward, because if it had been, that’s very different), while Mookie said that a lighter was used to start a fire that, on TV, appeared as though someone’s glasses started it.

CBS, predictably, responded to all of this with a non-answer: “Survivor producers follow a very strict protocol to never interfere with reality, that includes helping or hindering with life on the island.”

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.