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Survivor ends its worst season ever by doing one thing right: giving Kellee Kim an apology and time to speak

Survivor ends its worst season ever by doing one thing right: giving Kellee Kim an apology and time to speak
Kellee Kim at the Survivor: Island of the Idols finale and reunion (Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS)

Survivor: Island of the Idols ended with a reunion that had less than 40 minutes to talk with its winner (Tommy) and other players; hand out money from Sia ($15,000 to Jamal; $100,000 each to Elaine and Janet); and tease Survivor Winners at War, season 40.

But it did have time for Kellee Kim to talk about this season’s failures, and for host and showrunner Jeff Probst to apologize to her and promise that changes are coming.

First, a few statistics about a disturbing pattern that continues: Five men have won Survivor in a row now, the longest streak in the show’s history, and Tommy is the 11th man to win in 14 seasons.

For the fourth season in a row, there has not been a single vote cast for a woman, as this Twitter thread pointed out. And in the last five seasons, there have been 52 jury votes cast, and 50 of those have gone to men, as Dalton Ross noted.

That makes sense in isolation: This season, Noura didn’t exactly earn any jury votes, even though it was disturbing to watch as she was dismissed as playing emotionally while erratic and emotional Dean was not.

But when it becomes a pattern season after season, year after year, and continues for most of a decade? That’s a systemic problem.

As to another of Survivor’s systemic problems—its failure to handle Dan’s unwanted touching—there was news that broke just before the finale: The New York Times reported that Kellee’s lawyer had been in contact CBS, about both the “serious mishandling” of Kellee’s complaint and Kellee’s concerns that she wouldn’t be allowed to speak freely at the reunion.

CBS promised she would be, and told the paper that Kellee’s segment would be “broadcast unedited.”

An entire eight-minute segment—considerable time for a reunion, which usually just rushes past everything—was devoted to a conversation between Kellee and Jeff Probst. The rest of the stage was cleared, so it was just the two of them talking.

Parts of it were very frustrating: Jeff Probst included what happened with Dan in a list of “teaching moments” and said it was “unprecedented.” (It wasn’t.) He also focused entirely on Kellee and Dan, and as she has said, this is not just about the two of them. Probst interrupted her several times, and even though there was a time constraint, that was awkward.

The show offered its viewers no resources about sexual harassment, nor did it detail what changes are coming. (They obviously did do that in writing.) There was no mention of why Dan was finally removed. Jeff Probst did not explain why he’s had a complete 180 degree turn in the last couple months, going from an ardent defense of the show and its actions to this apology.

However, much of what Jeff Probst said was encouraging, even if it was long overdue, and Kellee made it plainly clear how the show failed her, and how it needs to change.

In Probst’s opening statement, which appeared to have been read from a teleprompter, Jeff Probst said, “We intended to do the right thing, but in the months that have passed, we have learned so much about what we could have and should have done instead, and if this happened today, we would handle it much differently.”

When he turned to Kellee, Probst started by saying, “You were right. You were right. You were right to speak up, you were right to step forward despite a lot of risk, and to speak your truth. And I want to acknowledge and apologize for your pain. You didn’t ask for it, and you didn’t deserve it.”

A few excerpts from what Kellee said:

“One of the things that has been and was the hardest thing was the fact that Dan remained in the game, even after I spoke up. And the reason why is not necessarily the injustice, it’s because I felt like I spoke up and I was not being supported or believed.

And when someone goes through something like this or anything remotely like it, to not be supported and not be believed is really the hardest thing.”

Probst told her, “Your voice should have been enough. And one silver lining is, it will next time.”

Kellee also said:

“I certainly did not ask for my Survivor experience to be defined by this or about this—and really no one sitting up here had asked for their Survivor experience to be defined by this or about this. And we can’t really go back and change what happened to be and what happened to all these other people.

It wasn’t just me; it was all these other people that had voices that were speaking up in different ways and people at different times are ready to speak up in different ways, and sometimes someone might not be ready to speak up in the way that I spoke up.”

And she ended with these incredibly powerful and emotional words:

“I hope that this season of Survivor isn’t just defined by inappropriate touching or sexual harassment. I hope that it’s defined by change, and I feel like I can be really proud of the fact that I spoke up and I asked for these changes, and CBS and Survivor are making those changes because I asked.

I have to fundamentally believe at the end of the day that individuals and institutions are capable of change. And I think that, as a result of this season, many of us have had these hard conversations. We’ve learned a lot, and I think we’re still learning.

Ultimately, my biggest hope is that each one of us—each individual, each institution, each organization, and especially CBS and Survivor, can take this and learn from it and do better. I fundamentally believe that we can do better.”

Final thoughts on Survivor: Island of the Idols

Survivor 39 cast, Survivor Island of the Idols cast
Survivor Island of the Idols is Survivor season 39, and this is its cast. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

(This is adapted from a lengthy Twitter thread I posted before the finale.)

I haven’t spent 20.5 years writing about and covering reality TV because I think it’s a “guilty pleasure” or trash. I’ve done that because I think it can be entertaining and transformative, as it has been for me.

A major part of my life as a fan, a critic, and a journalist has been Survivor. Before this fall, I watched every episode: 19.5 years! Finale nights have been party nights since that first season, and I’ve nearly always watched them with close friends.

I’ve certainly had plenty of criticism for Survivor over that time: of players’ behavior, and of the producers’ choices (from back in the day when I mocked product placement to dumb twists like the Edge of Extinction).

But that criticism has always been grounded in love for the format, game play, and the people who put themselves out there for our entertainment. That’s why I keep watching. Even when the show stumbles, I trusted that it’ll learn, adapt, and ultimately do the right thing.

This season started strong, hobbled by a dumb twist (as usual) but anchored by one of the best casts ever: strong personalities; wildly different approaches to the game; and diversity in age, life experience, sexuality, religion, and race. It was on track to be a great season.

And then—as was foreshadowed in several early episodes—the show failed its cast with two of the most distressing, heartbreaking, awful hours of reality TV I’ve ever watched.

My frustration and anger compounded between CBS’s silence and Jeff Probst’s maddening refusal to say anything of substance.

The information that did come out, though, provided more evidence of how inadequate the production’s response was. And any trust I had that Survivor would ultimately put its players first evaporated.

My trust lingered too long. As RHAP blogger Sarah Channon points out in this thread, sexual harassment is not new to Survivor, and in many ways, viewers are complicit.

Survivor was always the gold standard for reality TV, and if it was this ill-prepared to handle something so obvious, what in the hell might be happening on those cable reality shows that’re produced with no budgets and no standards?

I mean, I know what’s happened on many of those shows; I’ve been reporting on it and writing about it for two decades, including with Survivor, and in these two stories for Playboy.

But somehow, this failure still surprised me. Perhaps that’s because of how obvious all this was. Such clear evidence of wrongdoing—from producers and cast members—is usually not broadcast on prime-time network TV.

After the merge episodes aired, and in the month since, the reactions have been almost universally consistent with their shock, frustration, outrage, and horror. Sure, not everyone agrees with me or each other (and there are some dunderheads who insist that all of this was an overreaction while throwing around phrases they don’t understand, like “cancel culture” and “political correctness”).

But I can’t recall seeing Survivor viewers and critics react so similarly and passionately like this before.

This is a good opportunity to highlight some excellent pieces I’ve read—and listened to—over these past few weeks:

And then there’s this massive, multi-year thread from TV critic Mo Ryan that documents CBS’s consistent, repeated, infuriating failing.

Mo’s thread makes it clear that I shouldn’t have been surprised by CBS’s response, but I still was. In a word, it sucked: radio silence, hoping everyone would just move on.

Soon, Probst was only talking to EW and saying essentially nothing, despite being in charge.

That changed Tuesday night, when CBS released a lengthy statement with some acknowledgement of its choices and concrete plans for the future.

I’m encouraged that Survivor—and CBS’s other reality shows!—will be implementing these changes. But how is it that it took 20 years to create a rule banning sexual harassment?!

And the fact that they didn’t think they needed to do that after season 39 concluded last spring is telling: No one thought they had a real problem until this season started airing and people—fans, critics, press—started calling them out.

Incredibly, CBS/Survivor thought they had a season people would love, complete with a #MeToo storyline. But what they failed to see, fans saw immediately: crystal clear evidence of the production’s failure to keep its players safe.

What we’re left with this season is a game that was tainted by the production’s inaction, which is ironic because one argument for their inaction was wanting to let the players work this out themselves.

Survivor players get paid based on when they leave the competition, and since the network and production didn’t just cancel the whole season, it’d be nice if they paid everyone from Kellee on the same amount: let’s say $100,000 each, which is the typical prize for the runner-up.

Or, hell, give everyone $1 million! (Not Dan.) I know I’m dreaming here. But I want the show that was the gold standard of reality TV to actually live up to its reputation again. Instead, Survivor modeled the worst possible behavior, and treated its contestants like props.

For Survivor to move on, it will need action. That means being transparent and honest, which is the opposite of what CBS usually does: hides, lies, threatens. Tuesday’s statement had some of that, with comically rewritten history preceding the very promising plans for change.

While I watched the finale, I had no interest in this season’s game, which was tainted and comes with a giant asterisk. I hope that’ll change for season 40 and beyond, but this is also a deep hole Survivor has dug itself into, and it has a lot of work to get itself back out.

I share Kellee’s optimism that people, networks, and reality shows are capable of learning from their mistakes and learning.

As Kellee said during the reunion, “my biggest hope is that each one of us—each individual, each institution, each organization, and especially CBS and Survivor, can take this and learn from it and do better.”

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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.


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