Harassment Allegations on ‘Survivor’ Add to #MeToo Drama for CBS

(Bloomberg) -- “Survivor” contestant Kellee Kim thought she’d found soul mates in other women in the CBS reality show when she confided that a male competitor was touching her inappropriately.

But then, in an episode that aired last month, two female contestants of this season’s “Survivor” appeared to use Kim’s concerns as leverage to vote her off the show. Her ouster improved their chances at winning the $1 million prize.

Now CBS, home of the program for 20 years, is dealing with a torrent of criticism from fans and former contestants. Last week, officials removed the accused, Dan Spilo, from the show, but only after new allegations of an off-camera incident involving a crew member. The finale airing Wednesday night will be taped instead of broadcast live, out of an abundance of caution.

“My hope is that this incident will cause them to dig a little deeper into their own subculture and see what it will take to repair the damage,” said Miki Turner, an assistant professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School.

Spilo has apologized for his behavior, telling People magazine that he was sorry for how his actions “affected Kellee during the taping of this season of ‘Survivor.’”

Referring to a recurring scene in the show, he said: “After apologizing at the tribal council when I first learned that Kellee still felt uncomfortable, I want to make sure I do so again, clearly and unambiguously.”

A spokesman for CBS, a unit of ViacomCBS Inc., said that it “investigated responsibly and responded accordingly,” but that it should have done things differently. It will adopt new protocols and procedures for future seasons, including hiring an on-site professional to provide a confidential reporting avenue and implementing a new rule on physical contact “to ensure that the events that occurred this season are not repeated.”

The controversy is especially acute for CBS, which replaced its longtime chief executive officer Les Moonves over allegations of sexual misconduct and has wrestled with claims of sexual misconduct in its news division and at local stations.

Networks have become increasingly sensitive to accusations linked to their treatment of women and minorities, according to Joan Williams, a distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Hastings. That’s caused companies to give complaints more attention, but sexual harassment remains a pervasive problem, Williams said.

“This is an example of how women feel a new sense of entitlement not to have their boundaries violated, and there’s a new set of social norms, because he ultimately was kicked off,” said Williams. But still, she said, Kim was “disadvantaged by the fact that she complained.”

During the past week, Kim’s fellow contestants have apologized to her on Twitter, and Kim said she felt “vindicated” by the fact that Spilo was removed from the show, even though she lost her chance at the $1 million. “Survivor” remains a popular CBS program, averaging 8.75 million viewers a night so far in 2019, according to data from Nielsen.

The scandal could benefit ratings, Turner speculated, as more viewers tune in to watch the drama.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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