Survivor Survives the Ratings

Monday, March 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Harsh reality hit "reality TV" this week when a Survivor contestant tumbled into a campfire and was badly burned.

Survivor contestant Michael Skupin tries to cool himself in the water after burning his hands in the Kucha tribe's campfire.

On Friday, the morning after 31 million viewers saw Michael Skupin desperately trying to cool his hands in a stream before medics arrived, executive producer Mark Burnett made his No.1 priority perfectly clear.

"Hey, no matter what, the game goes on," he said bluntly during a Friday teleconference. "The first thing, always, is to keep the cameras rolling."

And what if a cameraman had stopped filming to come to Mr. Skupin's aid? Mr. Burnett was unequivocal.

"The cameraman is there for one reason, to keep the camera rolling. If he had dropped his camera and tried to help, I would have fired him on the spot."

The man behind CBS' smash hit would not say whether the mishap was captured by one of the show's numerous camera operators during filming last fall in the Australian Outback. Thursday's episode didn't show the accident, only the chaotic aftermath.

"I don't want to talk about what we do or don't have," he said. "I never answer those questions. Believe me, we have plenty of footage of agony, blood, blisters and pus, but none of that is appropriate for an 8 o'clock [7 Central] time slot."

The episode, which included a parental warning, earned a new Thursday-night ratings high for Survivor: The Australian Outback, surpassing NBC's perennial winner ER as the night's biggest draw. The segment, touted repeatedly as when "the unthinkable happens", culminated in Mr. Skupin's departure from the show and his teammates praying for their fallen comrade.

Crew and medics carry contestant Michael Skupin to a waiting helicopter for evacuation after he burned his hands in the Kucha tribe's campfire.

Mr. Skupin, 39, was treated by a team of paramedics and whisked away in helicopter. He spent a week in a Brisbane hospital recovering from the second-degree burns.

At first, Mr. Skupin was determined to return to his team, the Kucha tribe, and continue with the game. But that was not to be.

"They [the show's producers] let me figure out for myself that I wasn't going back, which was good. After a couple days, I realized I wasn't going back. It was a major disappointment."

That was a feeling shared by Mr. Burnett, but for a very different reason.

"I would have loved to see the agony of the tribe, on the one hand feeling sorry for Michael and what had happened to his hands. But on the other, wrestling with whether, because of what happened, to vote him out."

But the severity of Mr. Skupin's injury ruled out such a scenario. However, it wasn't bad enough that the software-publishing executive felt it necessary to inform his wife or three children.

"Had my injury been life-threatening or more severe, I would have told my wife.

"It was a personal decision. I wanted her and my kids to watch it, to go through the whole experience with me. To just say it wouldn't have had the same dramatic effect."