L O S A N G E L E S, May 10, 2001 -- 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 thisweek he sometimes reenacts scenes of his hit CBS show to get amore 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 Wednesdaywhile some industry observers questioned the need for thepractice.
Burnett insisted his occasional re-shooting a scene withstand-ins was for aesthetic purposes only and that the behaviorof the contestants as they compete to win a $1 million cashprize remained completely spontaneous and unscripted.
"Nothing that we do changes the dramatic outcome, or thesporting outcome or the emotional outcome of anything," he saidin a telephone interview.
Blurring the Lines
But Burnett, whose success in turning contrived humanconflict into hit television has changed the face of primetime, has raised new questions about the line between fictionand nonfiction in the popular new genre he helped pioneer.
"Knowing that Mark Burnett is staging certain events tomake them look better on camera is only going to play intotheories 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 itoff. "There's so little that's truly real that happens on thisshow anyway," he said.
‘Close to the Edge’
Robert Thompson, executive director of SyracuseUniversity's Center for the Study of Popular Television, agreedno one should be too surprised. "This is not the quiz showscandal," he said, referring to revelations in the 1950s thatseveral enormously popular prime-time game shows were rigged.
"On the other hand, this is pretty close to the edge of whatwe believed were the rules of this game," he said.
"The reason Survivor is better [than other realityshows] is that it is so beautifully shot, it is so cinematicand now we're finding out that it's because it is shot like amovie."
Burnett said he stages a reenactment to obtain a wide shotor overhead perspective that gives viewers "a better sense ofthe epic scale of the show" without cameras appearing in thescene.
Also Used Body Doubles
In one such instance during Survivor: The AustralianOutback, which ended its run on CBS last week, he re-shot ariver swimming race from a helicopter with body doubles wearingthe same bathing suits as the contestants.
The footage from the aerial shots were then spliced in withoriginal 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 tribesapproach [host] Jeff [Probst] for a challenge, we may do thattwice … because I want a nice wide shot," he said. "I thinkit'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 theSurvivor conspiracy theorists will go crazy with this," CBSspokesman Chris Ender said.
"But what Mark is talking about is nothing more than windowdressing. It doesn't involve the contestants and doesn't in anyway influence the outcome."
Was It Rigged, Too?
CBS and producers of the show are currently enmeshed in alegal battle with Stacey Stillman, a contestant from the firstedition of Survivor, who sued claiming the outcome wasrigged. The network has denied the allegation and countersued.
The revelation about Survivor reenactments surfacedMonday when Burnett acknowledged the practice during a paneldiscussion at the Museum of Television & Radio in New YorkCity.
The subject came up after the screening of an NBC News clipin which producers of another CBS "reality" show, BigBrother, staged and rehearsed an encounter between twocontestants that purported to be spontaneous.
"I almost fell off my chair when I saw that," Burnett toldReuters. "We've never, ever staged any reality whatever. We'venever asked a cast member to behave a certain way towardanother, never ever, ever."
Not that Burnett has any moral qualms about staging"reality" shows, given that the settings and circumstances ofthe shows are "totally contrived" to begin with.
"I wasn't philosophically opposed to it," he said. "I justdidn't think it worked."