Are the makers of the hit "reality" series Survivor breaking the rules of the game by re-creating certain scenes?
Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett admitted this week he sometimes reenacts scenes of his hit CBS show to get a more picturesque shot. But he said he sees no reason why "reality" should stand in the way of production values.
"This is not a documentary," he told Reuters Wednesday while some industry observers questioned the need for the practice.
Burnett insisted his occasional re-shooting a scene with stand-ins was for aesthetic purposes only and that the behavior of the contestants as they compete to win a $1 million cash prize remained completely spontaneous and unscripted.
"Nothing that we do changes the dramatic outcome, or the sporting outcome or the emotional outcome of anything," he said in a telephone interview.
Blurring the Lines
But Burnett, whose success in turning contrived human conflict into hit television has changed the face of prime time, has raised new questions about the line between fiction and nonfiction in the popular new genre he helped pioneer.
"Knowing that Mark Burnett is staging certain events to make them look better on camera is only going to play into theories that the game isn't being played on the up and up," said Matt Roush, chief critic for Guide magazine.
Nevertheless, Roush said most viewers would likely shrug it off. "There's so little that's truly real that happens on this show anyway," he said.
‘Close to the Edge’
Robert Thompson, executive director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, agreed no one should be too surprised. "This is not the quiz show scandal," he said, referring to revelations in the 1950s that several enormously popular prime-time game shows were rigged.
"On the other hand, this is pretty close to the edge of what we believed were the rules of this game," he said.
"The reason Survivor is better [than other reality shows] is that it is so beautifully shot, it is so cinematic and now we're finding out that it's because it is shot like a movie."
Burnett said he stages a reenactment to obtain a wide shot or overhead perspective that gives viewers "a better sense of the epic scale of the show" without cameras appearing in the scene.
Also Used Body Doubles
In one such instance during Survivor: The Australian Outback, which ended its run on CBS last week, he re-shot a river swimming race from a helicopter with body doubles wearing the same bathing suits as the contestants.
The footage from the aerial shots were then spliced in with original footage. Similar reenactments were done in the first Survivor series aired last summer, he said.
"The only other thing we've done is when the two tribes approach [host] Jeff [Probst] for a challenge, we may do that twice … because I want a nice wide shot," he said. "I think it's completely valid. I'm proud of the way we make Survivor. I'm not at all defensive about it."
The CBS network was equally unapologetic. "I'm sure the Survivor conspiracy theorists will go crazy with this," CBS spokesman Chris Ender said.
"But what Mark is talking about is nothing more than window dressing. It doesn't involve the contestants and doesn't in any way influence the outcome."
Was It Rigged, Too?
CBS and producers of the show are currently enmeshed in a legal battle with Stacey Stillman, a contestant from the first edition of Survivor, who sued claiming the outcome was rigged. The network has denied the allegation and countersued.
The revelation about Survivor reenactments surfaced Monday when Burnett acknowledged the practice during a panel discussion at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City.
The subject came up after the screening of an NBC News clip in which producers of another CBS "reality" show, Big Brother, staged and rehearsed an encounter between two contestants that purported to be spontaneous.
"I almost fell off my chair when I saw that," Burnett told Reuters. "We've never, ever staged any reality whatever. We've never asked a cast member to behave a certain way toward another, never ever, ever."
Not that Burnett has any moral qualms about staging "reality" shows, given that the settings and circumstances of the shows are "totally contrived" to begin with.
"I wasn't philosophically opposed to it," he said. "I just didn't think it worked."