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Why were Survivor winners warned to stop talking about Survivor?

Why were Survivor winners warned to stop talking about Survivor?
Tyson Apostol, Michele Fitzgerald, Denise Stapley, Tony Vlachos, Kim Spradlin, Jeremy Collins, Sarah Lacina, and Adam Klein read a note from producers titled "How to Use an Awl" on Survivor: Winners at War episode 8. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Six years ago, I wrote about why CBS and Jeff Probst should “free the Survivors from their Twitter prison.” That’s because the production and/or network were preventing cast members from tweeting or posting to social media about the show.

Those restrictions have obviously been relaxed since then, and there’s been more robust conversation online, including insight into what we didn’t see on TV. But one of the Survivor: Winners at War cast members has just revealed that this cast was recently “reminded” to not post anything that contradicts the televised version of the show. And that’s a problem.

Denise Stapley on Survivor: Winners at War episode 5
Denise Stapley on Survivor: Winners at War episode 5 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Survivor Philippines winner Denise Stapley, who single-handedly voted two-time winner Sandra out of the game, posted a note to her public Facebook fan page over the weekend. It says, in part:

“[…] In the past I have often been able to comment back, respond to those private messages, and simply engage on a fairy consistent basis.

Unfortunately…as a cast we’ve been recently ‘reminded’ to adhere strictly to the contract that we’re under. So please understand.. that while I’m disappointed as you may also be on some levels…I 100% understand their caution & would not want to take ANYthing away from the epic season that’s unfolding.

As players we’re asked not to offer ANY type of commentary or insight about game play or strategy. This includes any live tweeting, blogging, or Q & A’s with fans. And we’re asked not to respond in detail to any questions that would offer inside information, insight, or rationale into strategy that viewers would not see on the show. Sadly this includes even simple questions like ‘how long were you up on that pole???”

If the screen didn’t show it…I can’t share it.”

Denise went on to apologize to viewers and fans for not being able to reply to them: “I truly can’t comment or respond back to many of your messages asking questions about the season,” she wrote.

In response, one person commented, “We all should understand that Denise! You’re under contract to not ruin the outcome of any episode or the season, besides who wants that anyway? This season is so crazy fun I wouldn’t want to know a thing, the surprise is half the fun!”

But not spoiling the “surprise” is not the real issue here.

Survivor is attempting to control its narrative

Survivor: Winners at War's most functional tribe: Ben Driebergen, Sarah Lacina, Sophie Clarke, and Adam Klein, with Jeff Probst looking on
Survivor: Winners at War’s most functional tribe: Ben Driebergen, Sarah Lacina, Sophie Clarke, and Adam Klein, with Jeff Probst looking on. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

The inability of cast members to discuss the show online is written into the Survivor cast contract, which not only insists that contestants “not take part in any way […] in any on-line postings or chat rooms or on any websites […] regardless of whether or not such on-line postings, chat rooms or websites mention or reference” Survivor.

But it also goes much further, saying they must “not defame, disparage or cast in an unfavorable light Producer,” and even allowing CBS to register a domain with the cast member’s name and use it for whatever they want.

I understand wanting to protect the results of the game, though I really don’t think it’s necessary; it’s old-school thinking to insist that no one will care if they’re spoiled. University of California research actually found that “spoilers don’t ruin a story: They make you enjoy it even more.”

For reality TV evidence, The Bachelor and Bachelorette are regularly, accurately spoiled, down to what happens in each episode, but viewers show up anyway. Most viewers never see the spoilers, and super-fans who seek out spoilers still watch to see how that plays out.

Regarding this season of Survivor, there’s some plausible speculation—with a potentially major spoiler—in this Reddit thread involving one Survivor: Winners at War cast member, who has been replying to people on Twitter in a way that suggested they won (one example).

But the solution is to tell that person to stop doing that. That’s easy. Explain to that person what the problem is—or, if you want to be punitive and threatening, warn the person and remind them of their contract.

Of course, having a contract didn’t stop Russell Hantz from leaking the results of several seasons.

More importantly, what the Survivor: Winners at War cast were just “reminded” of has nothing to do with spoilers.

Instead, they were told something much more damning: Don’t you dare contradict what’s on screen.

Let’s go back to what Denise wrote: She said they’re prohibited from answering “any questions that would offer inside information, insight, or rationale into strategy that viewers would not see on the show,” and summarized this way: “If the screen didn’t show it…I can’t share it.”

Denise wrote that she “100% understand[s] their caution.” But she is more understanding than I am.

Perhaps there’s a reason, outside of spoilers, to prohibit the cast from talking about their experiences. But all I see there is a network and production’s attempt to control the narrative—to control people, and to control reality.

They already do this, of course: Three days of footage are condensed into about 43 minutes of television. They have to pick and choose what we see, and they have to shape those selections into a coherent story.

Editing is hard work! And of course things are going to be left out, including context. But what’s the harm in cast members filling in the gaps, and sharing their experiences with the hyper-engaged fans who follow them on social media?

This kind of command looks like Survivor has something to hide. Telling the cast to not discuss anything outside of what’s show on TV suggests that what wasn’t shown may contradict that narrative. Even if it does, why must that contradiction be kept secret?

All of this is especially concerning to me since we’ve just come off two seasons where cast members talked openly about their experiences and, in doing so, exposed major problems with the way Survivor has treated women and people of color.

We know about Survivor’s problems because cast members have told us

Jeff Probst's black-and-white portrait for Survivor Winners at War
Jeff Probst’s black-and-white portrait for Survivor Winners at War (Photo by Timothy Kuratek/CBS Entertainment)

This season, Survivor: Winners at War, has been such an incredibly strong season so far that it’s easy to forget the two seasons that preceded it.

After Survivor: Edge of Extinction ended last spring, Julia Carter wrote an essay about her experience, discussing how other players casually used racial slurs at camp, starting on day one. The production did nothing; just as they did not have a rule against unwanted touching, they apparently have no rule prohibiting racial slurs.

I later asked CBS executives about what Julia said. Without her sharing her story, and talking about what occurred outside of the official Survivor on-screen story, I wouldn’t have known to ask.

Last fall, during the worst season of Survivor ever, a lot of what we learned about the unwanted touching from Dan Spilo—and the producers’ response to it—came from cast members talking afterward.

What they revealed, on social media and especially in interviews, was not included in the episodes, including about the mysterious production meeting.

That season, during which Kellee was literally silenced, ended with CBS’s promise to change the way it produces Survivor. (Winners at War was not included in those changes because it was filmed last summer, before Island of the Idols aired and before the fallout finally forced CBS to respond.)

Yet now, four months later, someone associated with the production and/or network is telling the cast members that they better not say anything about anything that Jeff Probst and his team have decided to show us. Instead of encouraging transparency and open conversation, they’re issuing threats.

Why do that? What do Survivor and CBS have to hide this season?

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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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