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Castaway Files Lawsuit Against CBS and 'Survivor' Producer

Aired February 9, 2001 - 4:44 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: It has been one of the most talked-about and lucrative television shows in recent history. Last night, viewers tuned in to see the third person voted off the hit CBS show "Survivor."

Earlier this week, former cast member Stacey Stillman filed a lawsuit against CBS and producer Mark Burnett, claiming that Burnett orchestrated her exit from the show last summer. Now, we called CBS to ask them if they would put up a spokesman to appear on this program. They declined, but issued a statement, saying "We heard about Stacey Stillman's allegation several months ago. They had no merit then; they have no merit now that she has packaged them into a frivolous and groundless lawsuit. 'Survivor' has received more press and public scrutiny than any show in recent television history, and its creative integrity has remained intact throughout. We are confident that the courts as well as 'Survivor' viewers will see the case as utterly without foundation."

Joining us from Los Angeles to talk more about all of this is former investigative reporter, now Hollywood author and screenwriter Peter Lance.

Now, Peter, you have written a book about "Survivor," and you say that these allegations of tampering with the setup and with the teams involved may have some truth to them, right?

PETER LANCE, "WWW.THESTINGRAY.NET": Yes, actually Stacey revealed all this to me back in September, and we put the allegations in the book. The mainstream media initially treated it like an Oliver Stone movie, conspiracy theory. But over time, as more and more revelations come out and we developed a source inside "Survivor II" and our information proved to be bulletproof, we were taken more and more seriously. And the Stacey lawsuit this week was really a vindication of what we suspected from the beginning.

CHEN: You had also talked to someone more recently since the book came out.

LANCE: Well, I spoke to Dirk yesterday. You know, the heart of Stacey's allegation is that on episode -- day nine, really episode three, when she had to go to tribal council that night -- and it was only three days after she had won immunity for her tribe. That had never happened before on "Survivor." And she alleges that Mark Burnett, the executive producer, called Sean and Dirk, two of the other castaways aside, and encouraged them to vote against her for various reasons.

Up until now, that has been essentially hearsay. But in her complaint, her 14-page complaint filed in San Francisco court, she claims that there's a letter from Dirk Been in which he wrote to Mark Burnett confirming this.

And I spoke to Dirk yesterday. He confirmed the existence of the letter, and said that he would go to court and he would tell the truth.

CHEN: He would tell the truth that he does believe Stacey was...

LANCE: Well, he hasn't confirmed it or denied it. In my book, I put it to Dirk four times. You know, I said, Dirk, you're a good man, you believe in the Bible, you're a man of God, and if Mark Burnett did not do this, it would be an outrageous lie. So which is it? Did it happen or not? And he refused four times to confirm or deny it. I called it a nondenial denial, to use a Watergate term.

But in effect, Dirk is saying that this letter does exist that Stacey puts in her complaint as proof that in fact Mark Burnett encouraged him to vote her off.

Now, what's the significance of this? If in fact the producers of "Survivor," which is a game show, which is subject to FCC regulation, if in fact the producers are coaching people as to how their votes may go, this does have the potential for the "21" scandal of the decade.

CHEN: Well, going from Watergate to "Survivor" is sort of an interesting stretch, too. Now, I understand we have a quote here your book. "I also made some surprising discoveries about the way that 'Survivor' was produced. There was evidence of manipulation by the producers that raised provocation FCC regulatory questions."

You know, Peter, I guess just by its very nature reality TV isn't real because it's on TV. I mean, it's sort of out of context, isn't it? There are always cameras on, you know all this is going on, you know there are producers there, you know that there are people setting up tiki torches or whatever. I mean, it's not quite real anyway.

LANCE: Sure. Well, here's the thing, Joie. I think that people understand, the post-MTV "Real World" generation that we live in, they know about selective editing. They know -- they understand production techniques.

The question is, was "Survivor" rigged? Were the outcomes being determined ahead of time, for whatever -- whatever degree of producer manipulation there was. And if they are, then that could violate the FCC rules that were set up in the '50s.

Now, why would people care about this? See, I believe that people don't believe "Survivor" is professional wrestling. I believe most people -- I mean, there were Yale professors that had tiki parties last summer that saw this as an experiment in social Darwinism. It was like a video ant farm, a little sociological peek into the window of 16 people in an isolated setting.

And I don't believe most people think of it as professional wrestling. So the question is, if it turns out that it was rigged, is this going to be another Milli-Vanilli incident, where people feel defrauded?

You know, in America, I think people crave the truth. We're lied to by our politicians. We're lied to by the oil companies, the tobacco companies, the power utilities. People do expect some level of truth in -- especially in prime-time television. If they're calling it a reality show, it should be a reality show. If it's a fake, they should say it's a fake.

CHEN: Well, it's sort of in that "Biosphere" mode as well.

Let me ask you this: Mark Burnett, the producer, apparently responded to some of these allegations that the contest is rigged. He said, no, it's not. Can you talk about his reaction to you and your reporting?

LANCE: Well, Mark Burnett has said on the "Survivor" DVD that this in fact is a game show subject to FCC regulation. He said nothing was manipulated, nothing was faked. And ironically, two days ago, CBS has taken the position now that it's not a game show. And I think this is quite telling.

If they're saying it's not a game show, it's a little bit like a little boy who's caught with his hand in the cookie jar looking up at his mother and saying, mommy, these aren't really cookies and there's not really a jar here. I mean, if they're saying it's not a game show -- and clearly, I have a document, "The Confidentiality and Life Rights Agreement," which is on our Web site, which people can go to and get -- "The Confidentiality and Life Rights Agreement" that they signed initially, the original 16, calls them contestants. It describes it as a contest. It talks about a winner.

So if it's not a game show, I don't know what it is. But now, we've got a conflict between CBS and their own executive producer.

CHEN: Now, just a point of information, does the FCC only regulate game shows as a result of the "21" scandal, or does it regulate other entertainment shows in terms of their content and the reality in them?

LANCE: You know, this is such a new form. I mean, this may be -- if CBS ends up skating on this, it may be because this is such a new form.

But truly, the game show regulations, which were passed after the "21" show scandal, basically you cannot -- you have to state the material terms of the contest, no one competitor can be given an edge over another. And it remains to be seen.

I really believe it's an ongoing breaking story, and we'll see what happens.

CHEN: Peter Lance, joining us with his information about "Survivor" and the allegations against it. Thanks very much.

LANCE: Thanks, Joie.



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