BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Producers of reality television should have known better than to maroon a corporate lawyer. Now ex-Survivor castaway and attorney Stacy Stillman [sp?] is suing CBS for fixing the game. She says other contestants were pressured by the show's producers to vote her off the island. It's all reminiscent of the old Quiz Show Scandals of the '50s, in particular the game 21 in which the perspiring and ethnic Herb Stempl [sp?] was asked to throw the match in favor of the reassuringly Wasp-y Charles Van Doren. Bob Thompson is the head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Bob how did America react to the Quiz Show Scandals? This was after all the earliest days of television.
BOB THOMPSON: Everybody of course knew by common sense that this was wrong -- that this was somehow betraying the American public, and this really was the Quiz Show Scandal -- the fall from grace of American television which seemed to have so much promise before that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But nobody seems to see the Survivor case as a fall from grace! Does Stacy Stillman even have a case?
BOB THOMPSON:Well it all depends on whether or not Stacy Stillman was really voted off that island by some kind of consortium of power that included the producer and other people, and if that's the case, that would be-- a fraud according to those Quiz Show laws.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:On the other hand former FCC chairman Reed Hunt [sp?], he says the cheesy nature of so-called reality TV does not dignify regulatory intervention. There's nothing more hoked up than the fundamental premise of Survivor, so why should you regard any of it as remotely similar to reality?
BOB THOMPSON: He may be right. Yes, it's cheesy. Yes, it's-- a lot of the things he said, but nevertheless for all of its cheesiness, these things still are presenting themselves as games where contestants win money -- which is exactly what those quiz shows were before --and if in fact it turns out that they were manipulated, that is not different from what happened in the Quiz Show Scandal, and that is very much the-- purview of regulatory commissions. When, when I hear-- those kinds of statements where he's - he's essentially saying these programs are so stupid we don't need to regulate them, because no one they-- would believe they were true! Well I don't know if he ever watched some of the quiz shows back then like Dotto and Tic Tac Doe -- they were pretty stupid too!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:[LAUGHS] It seems to me that Reed Hunt has his finger ont he pulse of the American zeitgeist here if you can forgive that mixed metaphor, [LAUGHTER] because the fact is that no one seems to be particularly interested in this lawsuit! There's been little press coverage. There have been hardly any late show jokes.
BOB THOMPSON: The reason I don't think we're hearing a lot about it is it's interesting how this has been packaged as such that most people are looking at Stacy and Dirk and simply saying oh, they're sore losers! They got voted off; they're upset about it; and they want to continue their exposure and their possibility of getting money as a result of it. I think up until now most people don't care about the kind of manipulation that goes up to the vote, and most of them don't believe that the vote was in fact-- manipulated in the first place! if that came out with smoking-gun kind of evidence, I think then the comedians would jump on board; then the public outcry would, would happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well back in the days of the quiz shows, it didn't seem like Herb Stempl was the victim although he was the complainant. It seemed like the American people were the victims there.
BOB THOMPSON: I think to look at the participants here as the victims is probably the wrong way to look at it. I think it is the idea that the audience is presumably being presented with something that is one thing, and it turns out to be something else -- you know-- they're watching this show for a lot of reasons including its cheesy nature; including the excitement of-- a different kind of a genre, and let's face it -- Survivor was a really good rip-roaring show. It was fun to watch, and one of the reasons why Survivor was better than Big Brother was that they did take the care to re-shoot scenes; to be cinematically perfect. We've been the beneficiaries to be entertained by this show partially because they've pulled some of these-- these sorts of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does that somehow appear to be giving license to television producers to lie if it builds ratings?
BOB THOMPSON:There's a really disturbing calculus developing now which is the idea now that it's almost assumed that television is filled with fraudulent claims, over-exaggerations -- that it lies to us constantly -- that in fact what we're hearing happened on Survivor, if it in fact happened, would just be business as usual. I don't think the FCC or the-- Justice Department or anybody else can let that line of reasoning go! If this kind of stuff is going on-- I don't think you can simply say well you know everybody's been doing this --what is the big deal? You-- This would be like if-- you, you charged someone for murder and they would say well you know I, I've been doing that every week all my life, so what - why are you bugging me about it now?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks a lot, Bob.
BOB THOMPSON: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Thompson is director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.