The People vs. Pulau Tiga

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If Court TV needs a tag line, they can call it "Survivor 1.5." In an apparent effort to confirm yet another of America's stereotypes about lawyers, Stacey Stillman has reacted to losing the first "Survivor," months after the fact, by suing. Specifically, Stillman alleges that two other contestants — Sean Keniff and Dirk Been — were spoken to by producers, which led them to vote her off the island, which in turn meant the contest was rigged. (Keniff has denied the charge; Been neither confirms nor denies.)

Stillman's charges have their strengths and weaknesses. Certainly it often seemed like things fell a little too perfectly in place for the producers the first time around — the fact, for instance, that two competing tribes lost their members at more or less the same rate. On the other hand, Stillman's postulate that CBS wanted to keep crusty septuagenarian Rudy Boesch to hang on to older viewers — the most actively despised demographic in television — is weird, to say the least. (CBS bought "Survivor" largely to win a younger audience.) Being a rank legal amateur, I'll leave it to trained professionals — or another set of legal rank amateurs drawn from the San Francisco jury pool — to decide whether Stacey has a case. But her lawsuit raises a couple of interesting questions. What constitutes "rigging" a reality game show anyway? And does anybody care?

Whose scandal is it, anyway?

Journalist Peter Lance, who first raised these allegations in his book "The Stingray," likened the potential fallout to the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. The rigging of shows like "Twenty-One" led to national disillusionment and the establishment of FCC rules forbidding the fixing of competitions. But not only does this not yet look like a Charles Van Doren–scale shocker, I'm not sure whether one is even possible anymore. One reason has to do with the kinds of game shows in prime time nowadays. The other has to do with the people watching them.

The 1950s scandals, as befits a simpler time, involved simpler skulduggery. It was cut-and-dried: contestants were given answers and were ordered to win or to lose. Stillman's claim, even if proven, shows something much fuzzier. We're not talking about Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst dumping out the ceremonial conga drum and stuffing it with "STACEY" ballots in their own handwriting. The notion is that producers indirectly — through pleading? Coaxing? Leading interview questions? — caused contestants to change their minds. Which led them to vote differently. Which led to contestants' being voted off in a different order. Which led to different alliances being formed. Which led to a different winner.

To produce is to rig

This might or might not add up to something immoral, unsporting or even illegal. But follow it to its logical end, and the implication is: altering the social dynamic in a way that changes votes amounts to rigging. But "Survivor," and its followers, are social game shows — you win because a variety of factors cause your tribemates to vote one way or another. And any number of acts by the producers can do that. Choosing who goes in which tribe, for instance; or assigning physical challenges, which work against the weaker. Asking interview questions that dredge up hostilities.

And yet the job of the producers — the very thing that gets us to watch the shows — is to create the conditions for drama in precisely this way. Anything they do, by definition, alters the social dynamic. (The producers of "Big Brother" desperately changed the rules of the game on the fly to revive its ratings.) Last year, Richard Hatch, an experienced diver, increased his chances of winning (as he eventually did) when his tribe won a set of snorkeling gear, which allowed him to catch fish for his hungry victims. Do his opponents have a case against the producers for offering a prize that played to his strengths? Would he have had a case if his team had won a case of tuna fish and a can opener instead? There is vote-rigging, and there are entirely innocent acts. But almost by definition, most everything "reality" producers do falls in between.

Whose reality is it, anyway?

What's more, the FCC rules that the quiz-show scandals produced were meant to restore a compact of trust between the public and broadcasters. But that leaky raft sailed long ago. In fact, polls show that most viewers already assumed that "Survivor" was fixed. Viewers today are better aware of the Heisenberg effect than your average sociology professor a generation ago; not only do they believe that the shows are set up and edited for dramatic TV — viewing between the lines is part of the sport of watching. Rules are rules, of course, but if Survivorgate ends up disillusioning any of the masses, it'll be those receiving the broadcast a century from now on another planet.

Lance suggested in "The Stingray" that journalists weren't interested in any claims of dirty work by CBS because the "Survivor" gravy train benefited them all. Even if this week's feeding frenzy around the lawsuit hadn't disproved that, the claim is a bit of a reach. Our bosses may well be happy with the Pavlovian circulation, ratings and web-traffic numbers that "Survivor" stories (like this one) bring us. But trust me: Even for a TV writer who loves the show, churning out yet another "Survivor" preview or wrap-up — all to the delight of CBS's accountants and its all-controlling p.r. department — is at this point as joyful as a colonoscopy. Nobody would be happier to see CBS get embarrassed, or worse, for rigging a show than journalists. As far as the audience is concerned, though, the lawsuit may just prove one tribal challenge too many.