The “Survivor” Ethics Bomb: Dubious Setting, Interesting Issues

An ethics bomb exploded on  the CBS reality show “Survivor” last week.

Ethics bombs are unforeseen and unforeseeable incidents that suddenly start a chain reaction of ethics problems, dilemmas and conflicts in all directions. This was a lulu. Well, it was a lulu unless one thinks that nothing that happens on a reality show can teach any ethics lessons at all, since they are all, by definition, fake news. If you watch the show, what happens on it matters to you; you have accepted the devil’s bargain of pretending what is manipulated and edited  by writers and directors is “real” in exchange for being diverted and entertained—so the ethics scenarios that periodically break out seem worthy of serious consideration. If you would rather watch paint dry—this is my niche—caring about the pseudo-real crises that actually happened months ago in the most contrived situation imaginable makes as much sense as cheering at a professional wrestling match.

However, just as illuminating ethics issues are raised on “The Walking Dead”—kind of a post-apocalyptic version of “Survivor” with zombies—they can arise on a reality show. In this case, the ethics bomb spread out into unscripted “reality.”

“Survivor” has been on the air for 17 years and 34  seasons—I can’t believe I just wrote that— and is itself an ethics bomb, since it launched the reality TV virus into the culture. Copied from a Japanese show, the idea is that a group of contestants are forced to compete in a remote and harsh location, divided up into teams (tribes) that are guided through daily challenges that yield various prizes, ranging from food to immunity from being ejected.. Each episode sees the losing team gathered around a campfire (“the tribal council”) where they vote on which team member to kick “off the island,” a phrase that has entered our lexicon. Contestants form alliances with each other and often reveal their character, or lack thereof, by engaging in various Machiavellian tactics to survive, all captured on camera. Some contestants lie, cheat and steal. Sometimes it works.

Last week, the tribal council took a sharp turn into real world social tensions when player Jeff Varner, knowing that he was poised to be jettisoned by his tribe and desperately trying to get their ire focused elsewhere, attempted to undermine fellow contestant and tribe member Zack Smith. Varner began by darkly claiming that all was not as it appeared, for there was widespread “deception” afoot.

“There is deception here,” Varner said. “Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.” “Continue,” said show host and producer Jeff Probst, who has presided over and moderated each tribal council from the beginning of the franchise.

Varner then turned to  Smith and said: “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”


The  other tribe members, two men and three women, expressed what looked like genuine surprise and horror. They defended Smith, and angrily told Varner that he had crossed the line, though there are no rules in “Survivor,” just ethics, if one chooses to acknowledge them. Smith’s gender history, they agreed, was “personal” and had “nothing to do with the game.”

Varner argued that the ends justified the means. “I’m arguing for my life,” he pleaded. “I feel like I have to throw everything at the wall.”

“By outing somebody?” openly gay contestant Tai Trang replied?

Smith appeared to be the calmest one on the set,  explaining that his friends and family at home knew he was transgender, but that he chose not to make this aspect of his life a part of his “Survivor” narrative because he did not want to be stereotyped as the show’s first transgender player. Varner, realizing that his perfidy had sealed his doom,  then began to apologize pitifully. (Was it sincere, or the only strategy left to him?)  Smith, adopting the role of Ethics Hero, said he hoped the episode “would lead to a greater good.”

In response to the upheaval, Probst decided to waive the established procedure,  the  formal tribal council vote where contestants walk to a hut “alone” (there is a camera crew there), write their votes on a ballot and explain the reasons for their choice of the “kickee.” This time he just called for a show of hands–meaning that anyone who didn’t signal their virtue by condemning Varner would face social media fury—and of course Varner was unanimously eliminated.

“I’m so sorry,” Varner said, weeping,, as he hugged Smith.

“It’s okay man,” Smith said. “It’s going to be okay.”

It wasn’t okay for Varner, though. He became the latest target of social media hate, and was excoriated in pundit columns and cable panels as the ugly face of anti-trans bigotry. Then his employer, Allen Tate Real Estate, fired him as a company liability.

Let us examine the explosion:

1.”Survivor” was filmed ten months ago. The contestants are bound by contract not to say anything about what transpired. The show decides what footage to include and what not to include: reality shows are miracles of editing. This means that

a. Varner outed Smith to the cast and crew, but CBS outed him to the world, and

b. CBS made certain that Varner would be the object of hatred nationwide.

It didn’t have to do either. The show’s staff  knew that Smith was transgender; indeed, we have learned that this aspect of his background was a factor in his original casting. “Survivor’s” production team could have edited the tribal council sequence to keep Smith’s secret and to protect Varner’s reputation, but reality shows force contestants to agree to be vilified, misrepresented, exposed and humiliated in exchange for their shot at stardom. Thus it was CBS that ensured that harm come to both contestants, purely for ratings and profit. CBS and “Survivor” committed the classic Kantian ethical outrage: using a human life for selfish ends.

2. But did Varner and Smith consent to being harmed? Legally, sure. However, just because one can harm human beings without legal consequences, or because they have laid their throats bare, doesn’t make an unethical act ethical.

3. Even in a competition where there are no rules, one’s choice of tactics can trigger justifiable negative conclusions about one’s character. Varner’s revelation was an appeal to bigotry, a breach of privacy, anda rejection of the Golden Rule presented as a protest against “deception.” It is signature significance that he would even think of such a tactic, or believe for a nanosecond that it might work, or believe that such conduct on his part on national television—surely he didn’t forget that?—would not make him a cultural pariah and a social media clay pigeon. Thus he earned his villainy. He’s not a nice or trustworthy individual.

4 Or did the producers put him up to it? That can’t be ruled out. Nonetheless, if Varner agreed, he is still accountable.

5. His employer was not unethical to fire him. He should have expected it. Even though this all occurred ten months ago, his show contract prevented him from giving his firm advance warning. That alone was a firing offense: if an employee signs a binding contract forcing him to act against his employer’s best interests, that doesn’t mitigate the harm to the employer.

6.  In a long, pathetic, rambling and incoherent defense, Varner said this:

“I’ve been with this show long enough to know that these are manufactured situations, and this is a manufactured environment, and editing puts facial expressions to comments that don’t necessarily go there, so I’ve learned to watch the show in a way that it’s just not authentic in a lot of ways.But I think CBS did a really beautiful job. And just not knowing how it would be portrayed and not knowing how it would be.”


Translation:This situation wasn’t as spontaneous as the editing made it look and this made me out to be a bad guy, because as you know, a lot of this is fabrica–hey, what am I saying? I can get sued for this! What I mean is that CBS is wonderful, everything is real, and I’m not saying anything about the show. Not me!”

7.  Jeff Probst broke one of the few rules “Survivor” has: secret ballots in the tribal council, and by doing so, rigged the results, ensuring that Varner would be voted off unanimously. He cheated, which means the show cheated. “Forget it, Jack: it’s Realitytown.”

Like a real bomb, ethics bombs leave rubble and confusion, and it is impossible to put everything back together again.



26 thoughts on “The “Survivor” Ethics Bomb: Dubious Setting, Interesting Issues

  1. Long time Survivor fan here, so I have two things to add:
    1) According to all of the former contestants (as well as production) the game aspect of Survivor is real– that is, no one is put up to anything, only the players decide who to vote out. Of course, the editing of the show is regularly used to make what happened look the way the producers want, and occasional twists or calls are used to try to nudge things in certain directions, so no one would claim it’s totally outside their control.

    2) the question of CBS’s culpability has come up a lot, and personally I think we’re working without all of the facts here. One of the things CBS has to do is show why the winner won. If this is the last time this affects game play this season, I will eat my hat. Which meant that to hide it CBS would have either had to scrap the season, interfere with the gameplay (which, as stated above, they don’t normally do directly,) or bend over backwards to edit other reasons for the actions from this point on that will be based on this information.

    Or they could see how it plays out and work with Zeke and Varner (who both knew this was a possibility — Zeke had been on a previous season without being outed but had told Probst he would deal with it if it came up.) Which I think was probably the best balance they could achieve, unless they wanted to ban everyone who wasn’t out as gay/trans/anything else from here on out, for fear of having to waste a bunch if money and lose credibility among fans.

    • (To be a little more specific on point two, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is the centerpiece of a speech at the final bote that wins Zeke a million dollars. It would be hard to edit around it in that case.)

  2. After reading this piece, I am very glad I have never watched “Survivor.” There is something to be said for watching paint dry, as well as cleaning house in search of the “mother of all dust bunnies.”

  3. I find myself wondering what would’ve happened if they had allowed the normal secret ballot,and the transgendered guy had been voted off?

    Alas, we’ll never know, but it would’ve been fun to watch CBS deal with that! Which, I suppose, is why they made sure that didn’t happen (or at least stacked the deck against a sudden surge of anonymous bigotry) by changing the rules to eliminate the anonymous vote in this case.

    • To be fair, they’ve done non-anonymous vote offs before when special circumstances lead to the tribe agreeing on an obvious target for non-gameplay reasons. (The one that comes to mind was Brandon Hantz, who seemed to be mentally unstable and was voted off at a challenge his own tribe forfeited just to get rid of him.)

        • It was a Fans vs. Favorites (new vs. returning players) season, and that was the returning players tribe. I can’t remember how the tribe did pre-merge, but the winner of the season and one of the runner-ups were on that tribe, so it worked out fine for them at least.

  4. “Survivor” reminds me of this line from Macbeth: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” The people that produce these reality shows are in it only for the money and have no qualms about taking advantage of the clueless people who think somehow their participation will make them famous.

    • No one thinks they’re going to get famous from Survivor, not since season two or three, unless they count being famous in the fan community. Nor are they clueless after 34 seasons. People who play these days do because it’s a fascinating game. I always say that if football is a mock battle, Survivor is mock political intrigue.

      • Well, anyone who is a regular character using their own names for many weeks on live television is at least a little famous, just like finalists on American Idol were a little famous. It may just be Warhol’s 15 minutes, but still…

        • At least most of the contestants on American Idol could sing who reached the final rounds so that gave them some claim to having their 15 minutes of fame. To do that in front of a large audience with Simon Cowell ready to rip your performance to pieces takes some guts and determination.

          • Be fair. Allowing yourself to be dropped in a wilderness setting, wear rags and slowly starve while people rip you behind your back and writers conspire to turn you into a cartoon villain takes guts too.

  5. So how did Jeff Varner know that Zeke Smith is transgender? Did Zeke tell him? If a survivor lets any other survivor know anything about himself, then by doing so he is giving the other survivor permission to use that information at any time it may suit him, and so has no right to complain.

  6. I wonder why anyone watches that show, or any of the other reality TV shows, for that matter. Perhaps the entire reality TV phenomenon is inherently unethical, no?

    I did see a teenager’s version of that show once and I was horrified. I can’t remember if it was a Nickelodean or Disney, Jr., but it was an eye-opener. Some teenagers ran around trying to win some game. One of the contestants was a 12 – 14 year old girl. She openly suggested that she would pretend to like a guy on the other team to get information about the other team’s plans. She had no qualms about it, either.

    My wife was mortified that a teenager could be so cynical and employ an “ends justifies the means” attitude. It was beyond immoral; it was totally amoral. I wonder if that made her parents proud. We never let our son watch that show again.


    • Parents who want their kids to become rich and famous on television rarely have any qualms about the environment in which it happens.

      • Fortunely none of Groucho Marx’s tv shows were fixed. Perhaps that’s the reason it lasted for 11 years besides Groucho who was one of a kind.

      • In the case of Survivor, I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to the 50s quiz show fixing. It’s still unethical, but it’s more along the lines of payola combined with Golden Age of Hollywood-style image manipulation. They put a finger on the scale in some seasons, and they use the footage to spin how and why things turned out the way they did, but they can’t decide the winner.

        In fact, often (I’d say at least half of the time) the winner is someone they obviously would prefer not to have won. Fans know how to recognize an edit that’s basically “How *didn’t* win Survivor” that they use when the person fans will root for loses to someone the producers deemed uninteresting or unworthy. The story/editing focuses on the popular loser, but they still grit their teeth and give the million to the actual winner in the end.

        Once again, I’m not arguing it’s ethical, but I think the difference goes a way to explaining why people still play and watch.

        (And other shows might be better or worse, I only watch Survivor. I think the fewer people you have “deciding” the outcome, the more room there probably is for shenanigans. Survivor has to wrangle 20 judges who are also contestants, so it resists meddling fairly well, probably to the dismay of production.)

    • My wife, when we were dating, used to make me watch this show. I looked forward to the commercials and I hate commercials. Virtually unwatchable.

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