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Jeff Probst’s insufficient apology and response, and more on Survivor’s failures from Kellee, Jamal, and Josh Wigler

The events of last week’s Survivor: Island of the Idols episodes were exceptionally disturbing: Dan’s continuing unwanted touching, followed by Kellee being voted out, gaslighted by her fellow tribe members, and literally silenced as Dan was allowed to talk at her.

Besides Dan’s behavior, the biggest failure, though, is on Survivor. And CBS, Jeff Probst, and the production have yet to acknowledge that or indicate that there will be any meaningful change—even as recently as today, when Probst responded to questions with woefully inadequate answers.

For the record, I watched last night’s episode to see if the show would course-correct in any way. I will continue to report on the show, but I am not recapping it, because I have no desire to write about this season as entertainment. I do have a desire, as always, to attempt to hold those who produce entertainment accountable for their actions.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, the game is tainted. Dan should have been removed almost immediately. Who knows how the game would have proceeded if Dan wasn’t allowed to keep doing what he did. Perhaps Kellee would still have been voted out with two idols! But she would not have had to strategize to find her way out of an abusive situation.

I’m also not covering it as usual because focusing on the events of Survivor game now might lead me to use them as some kind of vindication—like imagining Aaron and Missy’s exits last night are payback for what they did and said last week.

That just removes responsibility from the production, and I am not willing to let them off the hook. These are massive mistakes, and Survivor and CBS have done next to nothing to suggest that they have fixed anything, starting with…

Jeff Probst’s latest response

Jeff Probst, Survivor David vs. Goliath episode 1
Jeff Probst during the season premiere of Survivor David vs. Goliath. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

In his weekly Q&A with Dalton Ross, Jeff Probst was asked for his “biggest takeaway in terms of the reaction from both fans and former players who were upset by what they saw and the way it was handled”.

Probst wrote two sentences:

“It’s an unprecedented and unfortunate situation that is still very raw for a lot of the players and fans. We are all trying to learn from it.”

It’s unfortunate, yes, but this absolutely is not unprecedented. Unwanted touching has happened on Survivor before: in Thailand, when Ghandia said Ted groped her in her sleep, and during Survivor All-Stars, when Sue Hawk said she was “sexually violated, humiliated, dehumanized” by a naked Richard Hatch during a challenge.

Last season had contestants casually using racial slurs. Four years ago, there was an incredible amount of verbal abuse directed at a survivor of domestic violence and abuse.

There’s a real problem with players’ behavior, and “trying to learn from it” is not Survivor addressing the systemic problems.

Survivor: Island of the Idols filmed last March and April, more than seven months ago, and Dalton Ross asked Jeff Probst, “Is there anything you wish you all had handled differently from a production standpoint, or anything you plan to change moving forward in terms of if behavior is observed that appears to be crossing a line or making someone uncomfortable?”

That’s an excellent question, to which Dalton received another two-sentence reply from Probst:

“We will definitely be using the lessons learned from the Dan situation as a guide in how to handle similar situations in future seasons. We have already started discussing ideas for how to change things in the future.”

What lessons? He doesn’t elaborate. And already started?! Why did it take seven months? That makes it sound like these conversations started recently because of backlash, not because the production or CBS acknowledged that there was a major failure.

Also: Structural changes are not the same as dumb themes that undermine the game. You don’t need “ideas for how to change things.” You need rules and you need your crew to enforce those rules and protect the people who are making you and the network millions and millions of dollars.

While I have frequently questioned his decisions, I have never doubted Jeff Probst’s love for Survivor and its fans. But as showrunner of one of television’s most-popular reality shows, he is responsible for much more than just producing a fun show every week.

He is responsible for the people who make his show possible, and for the messages that show sends to the world about what is okay and what is not.

Kellee and Jamal’s exit interviews

Kellee Kim on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 4
Kellee Kim on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 4 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

The many failures of CBS, Survivor’s production, and executive producer Jeff Probst are evident in the exit interviews done by both Kellee and Jamal, which were conducted via e-mail.

Think about Probst’s responses as you read Kellee’s responses to Gordon Holmes’ questions, which starts with this:

“I did not have any choice on if and how the story would be told. CBS did not allow me to view the episode early, and it has been difficult for me to both grapple with my feelings and figure out what to say.”

Again, CBS had seven months to figure out how to deal with this. The bare minimum they could have done would be to allow the player involved to see the episode early. And that would take zero effort: select members of the Survivor press corps watch episodes before they air, which is how some recaps get published at 9 p.m. ET, seconds after the credits roll.

Kellee also explains that there was no formal way to raise concerns on the island other than to talk during to a producer during a filmed interview, which could lead to other consequences:

“If there’s an official complaint avenue, I was not aware of it. If the only way to speak up is that you’re on video, that’s also a problem because it could be aired. I don’t know all of the answers and I think it’s a complicated issue that we – cast, crew, and producers – are all now thinking about.”

Kellee also wrote this, responding to how her castmates responded:

“First, I would like to say that if Dan had respected boundaries, none of this would have been an issue. Second, for me, I draw the ethical line at using a sexual harassment situation to bond or to further myself in the game or in life. If people lie or use it as a tool, it confuses and tarnishes the truthful stories. Third, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. By staying silent or ‘not knowing,’ you are complicit. By not taking a side, you enable the behavior. Fourth, it’s not a fair playing field; life is not a fair playing field, especially for young women. Not only are we trying to strategize and play the game, but deal with unwelcome advances, touching, and harassment.”

Gordon also interviewed Jamal via e-mail, and it reveals that what happened at the second Tribal Council was much worse:

“The most uncomfortable part for me was when Dan gave his speech about his behavior. For much longer than it appeared on the show, Dan directed his comments towards Kellee on the jury bench, and it must have been incredibly frustrating for Kellee to not have a voice in that discussion.”

Yes, it’s not normal protocol for a juror to speak during Tribal Council. But that was not a normal Tribal Council, and what happened to Kellee had already affected the game. In that moment, we needed to hear from her, and instead Jeff Probst gave the floor for Dan to talk at Kellee.

Jamal also explains the complexity of the situation for the cast members:

“I agree that it looks pretty bad to be seen as the ones ‘crossing the line’ when it comes to using Janet and Kellee’s feelings about Dan as strategy, but I think it’s complicated because, if you are in this game environment and you truly believe that the other people there are using that same issue as a game move, then you might come to the conclusion that you’re just doing what you think everyone else is doing. You want to go further in the game. You don’t want to get played by having your feelings manipulated. You don’t have all the information about what’s true and what’s not. As far as you’re concerned, you feel safe and secure with the people in the game.”

Meanwhile, Jamal also suggests that the cast isn’t being allowed to discuss parts of this story, suggesting there is more to come in the future:

“I know we will have ample opportunity to discuss this so I will not say as much about it now until we can all speak openly about it, but I will say that from what I experienced during that group meeting, it is perfectly plausible that Dan was unaware that production was referring to him and his behavior. According to the episode, Dan received an explicit warning, but watching the episode was the first that I heard of that”

Production’s meeting with the cast is being used as an example of what the show did right, but if what was said was so vague and nonspecific that Dan might not have known it was about his behavior, then it was instead inadequate.

Jeff Probst’s previous apology

Survivor host Jeff Probst on the Survivor: Island of the Idols Tribal Council set. He'll also host Survivor 40: Winners at War
Survivor host Jeff Probst on the Survivor: Island of the Idols Tribal Council set. He’ll also host Survivor 40: Winners at War (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

In a statement sent to the Los Angeles Times last Thursday, Jeff Probst said more than he did in interviews earlier that week. Here are a few of the things he said:

“There are so many layers to this story. 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. From our point of view, there was no clear answer. That is why we met privately with every player to see how they were feeling. Every player understood what we were asking and every player wanted the game to continue without production getting involved.”

Why is this the players’ decision? Why is it up to them to decide how to deal with harassment? Can you imagine a manager or a CEO dealing with unwanted touching in a workplace this way? Oh, we asked everyone, and they just wanted to keep working!

If some people are okay with harassment but others aren’t, does the majority win?

Jeff Probst also said:

“As you saw with Kellee during the episode, she too felt the players could handle the situation.”

On the one hand, I can understand why the production might want to defer to the target of unwanted touching, in the same way that survivors of sexual assault decide whether to press charges.

But this is happening in the context of a game and what essentially is a workplace. If the decision was left to Kellee, how would that have looked to other players (and viewers) if she’d decided Dan should be removed? It could have easily been read as making a claim for strategic purposes.

It’s also completely unfair to put enforcement of rules onto players.

Here’s Probst again:

“In addition, we knew the players always had the option to simply vote Dan out of the game. But they didn’t. In fact, several players were in an alliance with him. This really speaks to the complexity of the situation.”

It was complex because you let it happen: Had Dan been removed earlier in the season, after continuing to touch people without their consent, the game would have proceeded without the players having to navigate this and the game, as Jamal explained above.

“I accept my own responsibility in the situation. We did what we thought was right in issuing Dan a warning, but I certainly respect anyone who feels we should have removed Dan from the game.” 

It’s great to accept responsibility—but for what? There’s no admission of a failure, even in hindsight. Probst isn’t agreeing with people who think Dan should have been removed.

Instead, he’s still defending the warning that none of the other players knew was issued. And how, exactly, did that warning protect Kellee or anyone else?

Finally:

“A lot of people are upset with Missy and Elizabeth for lying about Dan’s unwanted touching in order to further their game because they rightfully feel that it does damage to a powerful movement. I don’t believe Elizabeth ever fully understood how upsetting the Dan situation was to Kellee. And even though Missy knew what she was doing when she asked Elizabeth to lie, I don’t think she ever considered the possibility that her actions could have an impact outside of the game.

I spent a lot of time with this group of people, and even though lying is an accepted part of the game, I don’t think any of the women knowingly intended to discount anyone’s feelings or do damage to the #metoo movement with their actions. I have spoken with some of them and heard their remorse and I know it is genuine.”

Amazing how many thoughts he has about the consequences of Missy and Elizabeth’s actions, but has no thoughts about his own actions or decisions and their consequences. It’s easier to continue to blame the cast, I suppose.

Survivor has lost one of its strongest voices

Josh Wigler, whose contributed invaluable coverage of Survivor to Parade, The Hollywood Reporter, and RHAP, announced last week that he was no longer covering the show.

“There is so many different reasons that this feels like a failure—a huge production failure, a huge, huge failure on Survivor’s part,” he said in an emotional coda to an episode of “The Wiggle Room.”

This is a major loss for the Survivor community, as the outpouring of love for Wigler has demonstrated over the past week. I have nothing but respect for Josh’s work, and also for the honesty and vulnerability he showed in the podcast episode.

“I’m just so angry about it. I’m really angry about it. As somebody who’s been in the trenches of the Survivor world for a few years now, it just feels like a major violation. And it just reeks of unpreparedness. It’s hard for me to articulate quite how personally disappointing this is,” he said.

Josh even criticized his own coverage, specifically his interview with Jeff Probst. It turns out was conducted via e-mail, and thus offered no opportunities for follow-up questions. “I’m not going to be doing an e-mail interview with Jeff Probst that’s hardly sufficient to cover the magnitude of what’s just happened here,” he said.

Among his other comments:

  • “This is just an area that they [Survivor’s production] are woefully unprepared for.”
  • “There’s no way to sweep under the rug the mismanagement.”
  • “It’s such a critical failure on a lot of levels, and I’m really unimpressed with the response to it so far.”
  • “I’m really struggling with the role that I’ve had with it.”
  • “I can’t risk my sanity and my sobriety over this any more.”

“This isn’t something I can get over like I can get over a shitty production idea,” he said. “Survivor knows they screwed this up so horribly.”

But do they? Having lost Josh Wigler, having failed Kellee Kim, having neglected to even offer a title card with resources, I don’t think Survivor even begun to acknowledge the scope of the damage it’s done to the franchise—and, far more importantly, to people.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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