‘Survivor’ host Jeff Probst apologizes to contestant for handling of #MeToo incident
After a tumultuous, scandal-marred season, “Survivor: Island of the Idols” has finally come to an end.
But the #MeToo controversy that engulfed the long-running reality competition — resulting in a contestant’s expulsion and criticism of CBS and the producers’ handling of the situation — will continue to reverberate into future seasons, with the network planning to implement new policies and procedures to improve safety on set.
“Survivor” crowned its 39th winner Wednesday night during its reunion special in Los Angeles, bringing the players back together after the finale to reflect on the game. Breaking a decades-long tradition, though, CBS pre-taped this season’s reunion, which usually airs live, because of sensitivity concerns.
Bucking tradition has been a running theme on “Island of the Idols,” which repeatedly broke the fourth wall to address multiple #MeToo moments and, for the first time, ousted a contestant for misconduct before the final vote. During the reunion, the spotlight was on Kellee Kim, an MBA student from Costa Mesa who first expressed concerns about fellow contestant Dan Spilo inappropriately touching her and other young female players in the season premiere.
Wednesday’s episode of “Survivor” sparked controversy when multiple female contestants accused a male player of inappropriate touching.
After he revealed the final votes in the studio, host and executive producer Jeff Probst spoke directly to Kim, apologizing for how she was treated during production — the first time he had done so, publicly or privately, since she spoke up.
“Before we begin, I want to say to you, you were right,” Probst said. “You were right to speak up. You were right to step forward ... and to speak your truth. And I want to acknowledge and apologize for your pain. You didn’t ask for it, and you didn’t deserve it.”
He then opened the floor up to an admittedly nervous Kim to share her feelings and any additional concerns she might have with how the season’s events transpired. Holding back tears, Kim explained that she felt a responsibility to do right by herself and other survivors of sexual misconduct.
“The last seven, nine, however many months it’s been, it’s been really difficult and hard, and what that apology meant wasn’t just — it’s not about right or wrong — it was about being heard and seen and believed,” Kim told The Times on Wednesday after the reunion taping. “That feeling — having gone through something like this — is so incredibly important and powerful.”
By mid-season, a tearful confessional from Kim and more accounts from castaways of non-consensual touching by Spilo, corroborated by island footage, motivated production to step in, issuing a warning to Spilo and a public statement explaining how the situation was handled. Producers removed Spilo from the game four episodes later, after an unspecified off-camera incident that did not involve a contestant.
“What that apology meant... it’s not about right or wrong, it was about being heard and seen and believed.”
“Survivor” contestant Kellee Kim, on receiving an on-air apology from host and executive producer Jeff Probst
“One of the things that was so hurtful about this entire situation is, Dan was allowed to remain in the game even after I spoke up,” Kim said. “And again, it goes to this idea of not being heard or believed. My voice was not enough.”
Spilo was not present for the reunion special, but the Hollywood talent manager did issue a formal apology, addressed specifically to Kim, the day before the finale.
“I am deeply sorry for how my actions affected Kellee during the taping of this season of Survivor,” Spilo wrote in a statement provided to People magazine. “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.”
During that tribal council, at Probst’s prompting, Spilo said, “If anyone ever felt, for a second, uncomfortable about anything I’ve ever done, I’m horrified about that, and I’m terribly sorry.”
“I truly regret that anyone was made to feel uncomfortable by my behavior,” Spilo reiterated in Tuesday’s statement. “In my life, I have always tried to treat others with decency, integrity and kindness. I can only hope that my actions in the future can help me to make amends and show me to be the kind of father, husband, colleague and friend that I always aim to be.”
For the first time in “Survivor” history, producers removed a player from the game for continued inappropriate behavior.
In response, Kim put out her own statement on Twitter — on which she has remained outspoken about her experiences and grievances with the show — expressing disappointment with Spilo’s failure to extend his apology to others affected by his behavior.
“It’s curious that Dan has decided to publicly apologize to me — and just me — on the eve of the #Survivor39 finale for a series of inappropriate incidents that occurred months ago and impacted a number of women on set,” she wrote on Tuesday. “For me, this statement only underscores the responsibility of CBS and Survivor to take action to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
I truly hope that some of this self reflection is real and that Dan changes his behavior going forward. For me, this statement only underscores the responsibility of CBS and Survivor to take action to prevent anything like this from ever happening again in the future. #Survivor— Kellee Kim (@kellee_kim) December 17, 2019
Probst’s and Spilo’s are among several public apologies Kim has received since exiting the game, including from fellow players Missy Byrd and Elizabeth Beisel, who regretted exaggerating their own feelings about Spilo in order to further themselves in the game and eliminate Kim. The questionable move earned Byrd and Beisel backlash on social media from those who believed the allies took the show’s tag line, “outwit, outplay, outlast,” too far.
“They didn’t ask for this either,” Probst said of Byrd and Beisel at the reunion during his one-on-one conversation with Kim. “None of you guys asked for this. Your voice should have been enough.”
While Probst has publicly taken responsibility for how things went down behind the scenes, Kim says she never received an apology from the host or anyone else on the “Survivor” production team until the taping of Wednesday’s reunion show.
“There was nothing,” she said, adding, “The thing that has been hard about this situation is, everything has taken a really long time, and I think that’s why these changes are so important.”
From Gabrielle Union on “America’s Got Talent” to an ejected “Survivor” contestant, the #MeToo era demands accountability from TV networks.
Shortly after Spilo shared his open letter to Kim, CBS released a list of new policies and procedures by which “Survivor” vows to abide in the future — guidelines Kim said were implemented at her request.
“I sent a letter,” Kim said. “That has been my experience over the last seven, nine months — since we got back, really — is asking for my voice to be heard ... and ultimately asking for these changes we made. Things need to be different. They have to be different.”
A spokesman for CBS said in a statement in response: “We’ve been discussing some of these plans for months, but clearly Ms. Kim’s experience on the show helped define the new measures we’re putting in place.”
Proposed steps include adding “another on-site professional to provide a confidential means of reporting any concerns”; amending preproduction orientation to include “new anti-harassment, unconscious bias and sensitivity training for cast, producers and production crew”; implementing a new rule “stating unwelcome physical contact, sexual harassment and impermissible biases cannot be brought into the competition and will not be permitted as part of gameplay”; and partnering with “a third-party expert in the field to review, evolve or add to these new policies and procedures going forward.”
“I didn’t have those structures in place to know where to turn or how to make things happen, or where to ask for help or any of those things — or even get help when I didn’t know I needed it,” Kim said. “Now, going forward, I hope that future people, players, crew, whoever it might be, have the resources to deal with that and cope with that.”
With the program’s all-winner 40th season fast-approaching, Kim is hopeful that her refusal to stay silent will make a difference. But for now, she said, “without the intent and the heart to change and take responsibility, these procedures and policies, they’re just words on a piece of paper.”
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