A recent episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols featured issues of inappropriate touching that escalated to a level that required rare intervention by producers and a response from CBS. But fans were left wondering if the response and action were enough and what could have been done differently.
Over the course of season 39, multiple female contestants have expressed various levels of discomfort from the physical touching by one of the male cast members. In a social climate that includes women being empowered to speak up on such issues in a way they hadn't in the past, this didn't go unnoticed by viewers, cast and crew, or the network that airs the popular reality show. There is a lot to unpack that happened both in this single episode and over the course of the season, but the handling of it by the show and CBS has come under scrutiny. There is a lot that was ultimately done correctly by CBS, but was it a case of too little too late? Where was the ball dropped on this #MeToo scenario playing out live in front of viewers?
In a rare move for reality TV, fans were given a glimpse at the response from producers to cast member Kellee Kim's concerns. The fourth wall was broken when viewers heard a production member say to Kim, "If there are issues to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that stops." The unknown team member went on to say, "Because I don't want anyone feeling uncomfortable…It's not OK." Fans were also privy via an on-screen announcement to the fact that, the following day, production spoke to the players as a group, as well as individually, about the matter. CBS went on to give the person in question a warning about the behavior. All of these things are great and show that reality TV is progressing in its handling of these topics along with the rest of the world. Host Jeff Probst's appeared unusually emotional on the topic during tribal council when he ensured that the topic wouldn't be "swept under the rug" by forcing a discussion in front of remaining cast members, as well as Kim, who was voted out and now on the jury with previously eliminated fellow contestant, Jack Nichting. All of these moves showed that CBS was taking the issue and these women's complaints seriously.
But was this enough? Why was this seemingly good response by CBS met with controversy? Viewers watched this unfold over the season, and many remarked weeks ago on the inappropriateness of some of these interactions. Fans acknowledged the visible discomfort of Kim and others long before the most recent episode, so why did CBS wait so long to act? Much of the ugliness that unfolded could have been avoided with early intervention. As Kim herself pointed out, it shouldn't take five women to require intervention. There shouldn't be a required number of incidents. Action should have been taken on one incident with one woman. Had the same warning been offered to Dan very early on, it would have not only saved multiple women from repeated unwanted touching incidents, but it would have benefitted Dan and CBS as well by giving both an opportunity to fix things before they had to be brought out in such a public manner. The issue would never have escalated to a level that had a player in tears of frustration and another shell-shocked after her attempt to help backfired. It never would have filtered into the gameplay. CBS did show up. They were just inexcusably late.
In a real-world example, what if an employer noticed one employee touching another in a way that visibly made her uncomfortable, overheard her and other women discussing similar experiences in the break room, and yet did nothing? If they waited instead until one of the women got the courage to put her career at risk by filing a formal complaint with HR, would we be commending that person or questioning the choice to look the other way? In the end, CBS did something, which is a move in the right direction, but the fact that we had to watch it go on for so long before they did shows that networks still have their work cut out for them in navigating these issues.
Survivor: Island of the Idols airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.