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The Stingray: Lethal Tactics
of the Sole Survivor
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RASH FIERCE BLAZE OF RIOT CANNOT LAST"
The stingray, known in marine biology as a torpedinoform, is a member of the shark family of elasmobranchii. Native to the islands of the South China sea, the ray is equipped with two devil-like electric organs above its tiny eyes; horns fused to its branchial muscles that are capable of rendering its victims stunned or lifeless through an electric jolt.
It is ironic that this flat, round marine animal became a kind of metaphor on the most successful summer television series in history: SURVIVOR. Watched by 71 million Americans in the last of its 13 episodes, this runaway hit made instant celebrities of its 16 "Castaways," shifted CBS's demographics from a Reader's Digest base to MTV's and grossed $52 million for the network's parent company, Viacom.
The star of the show was a gay, overweight corporate trainer from Newport, R.I. named Richard Hatch; a bearded, Machiavellian figure with piercing blue eyes who kept his fellow tribe members fed, as he brilliantly plotted their doom, gleefully comparing them to the rays he skewered. Stab! Blood in the water. "Bye, bye baby." You're gone.
I spent the Summer of 2000 preparing to write a book with Richard on his SURVIVOR experience. We formed an "alliance" and worked together for months. Then, within weeks after the final episode, Richard turned on me the same way he had turned on his fellow Tribe members.
In effect, I was the 17th Castaway and the tale of how that happened is as surprising as the inside story of Richard's victory. It's a page-turning study of blind ambition, network control and behind-the-scenes moves on the first in a new wave of "reality" programming. A genre that is changing the face of prime time TV. It's a story I would never have thought to examine critically but for the behavior of the series star, identified in a recent cover story as "King Richard."
You see, within six days of his SURVIVOR victory, Richard and I had a contract with St. Martin's Press for a book advance worth $500,000. We were going to tell the "authorized" story of his tumultuous life. Then, in an instant, that biography exploded with the force of a lightning bolt striking Pulau Tiga; the tiny Survivor Island. After months of promises, Richard had failed to deliver the permission from CBS necessary to mount a book on his Survivor experience. As he'd done to the gullible Castaways before us, Richard kept the full truth from me, our lawyer, our literary agent and the publishing house itself. The book deal, which would have earned half of what he made on the Island, was dead. Stab. Blood in the water. I was gone.
Did I see it coming? No more than Gretchen, Greg, or the other Pagong Tribe members who cozied up to Richard, then found themselves on the wrong side of the Tribal Council Bridge. This story might have ended there, but for Richard himself. You see, the cold-blooded strategy that won him the million wasn't good enough. Over the next few weeks, in a bizarre series of miscalculations, he proceeded to jeopardize his shot at lasting fame.
It happened for a number of reasons; chief among them, a discovery I'd made about the vice-like grip that CBS held over the Castaways. Insisting that they sign a series of life rights contracts, the Eye Network maintained an iron clad post-SURVIVOR control that would keep many of the 16 from earning anywhere near the money they thought their new found fame would bring. It was that same stranglehold that had torpedoed our book deal and it would cost the other Castaways potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in the months following the Finale.
This was a story that screamed out to be told; especially to anyone thinking about joining a SURVIVOR Tribe in the future. But it had an even broader application. I realized that the shocking tactics I'd learned from Richard could benefit anyone who has ever needed a strong defense. What happened to the Castaways was a chilling primer in how to "watch your back" in life. A manifesto on self-protection.
Beyond that, in telling Hatch's story from a critical point of view, I'd stumbled onto a series of insights into child rearing and personal development that no self-help book had ever revealed. So "the book" took on a radically different tack from the one I'd conceived in July. Before, it was an adventure story; a textbook on cutthroat management strategy and a piece of redemption literature. Now it was all that and more: a study of the insane, moment-by-moment rules of pop culture.
As "King Richard," quickly found out, winning the throne was just the first step. The real key was understanding how to "rule;" How to manage celebrity once he'd won. Richard proved brilliant at the primary challenge. But he behaved like a hick on a Starline Hollywood Tour when it came to using his fame as a launching pad for the rest of his life. It's the age old question with a Y2K spin: "What does it profit a man to gain the entire world, if he loses his immortal soul?" Worse, if he loses it on national television?
This is a story about morality. The choices we make for good or bad. How the race is ongoing. How it's not enough just to win a lap, you have to be able to go the distance. In my case, I bet on a sixteen-to-one shot and hit the Trifecta. I'd picked the right jockey then realized that the horse was doped. Or maybe I was the dope. It didn't matter. What counts is this: the story of how Richard lost is as fascinating as the story of how he won and it's all here.
Now let's get back to that morality thing. It's no trick to call the outcome of a Monday Night Football game on Tuesday morning, but the more time I spent with Richard I began to feel that I had booked passage on The Titanic. Hatch was a charming Falstaffian figure, but he was capable of inflicting great pain. And because my interests in doing the book were tied to his, I looked the other way. Even in August, as my kids helped me prepare a clip reel of "Rich's greatest hits" to send to publishers, I refused to see this man for who he really was.
As a journalist I was beginning to feel queasy inside. Was I really about to ghost write and flak for "Darth Gayder," a man, who seemed to take delight on T.V. in committing game show homicide?
As each day counted down to the Final Four episode, the warning signals were flashing. Richard was becoming more and more distant and petulant; even vicious at times. He was turning into that guy on T.V. in front of my eyes. There was a little white angel on one shoulder telling me to go into the den; look at my Emmys for investigative reporting, The National Headliner Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Award. What was I doing with this guy? But then on the other shoulder, I saw a little red devil with a pitch fork and horns. There was a stingray on the end of the fork and the devil had Richard's face. He was whispering to me... "Trust me Peter… Trust me..."
In order to fully appreciate the betrayal, you have to know how the idea for this book began. It all started back in May, 2000 with a terrible headline I'd read in the New York Post: "BOY SAYS 'REALITY SHOW' DAD ABUSED HIM."
Like Richard, I grew up in Newport, Rhode Island where I began my career as a cub reporter at The Newport Daily News. There, at the age of 20, I won my first award for investigative reporting. I went on to Columbia J School, Fordham Law School and the Manhattan DA's office before becoming Chief Investigative Correspondent for ABC News. I'd seen my share of "media lynchings" over the years and when I read that headline, I knew there had to be more to it.
Within two days of his return from the seven week SURVIVOR tour, Richard had found himself arrested and jailed for felony child abuse. His adopted son was removed from him and put into a foster home and Hatch faced up to 10 years in prison. Coming on the heels of the Rick Rockwell embarrassment following the equally embarrassing Fox stunt show "Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire?", this was not a headline CBS wanted.
As an old family friend, I remembered this cute little kid with piercing blue eyes called "Dickie Hatch." My father was close to his aunt and his mother Peggy was my cousin Sheila's oldest friend. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I made a few calls to friends and press contacts in Rhode Island, assessing the case by long distance as best I could. Keep in mind, that this was my stock and trade as an investigative reporter: analyzing cases with complicated fact patterns; deciding whether a targeted person was guilty or falsely accused. Almost every story I'd done for ABC News began like this. Sometimes I found out that a person who was an angel on first blush was really the devil.
But this time, when I'd gathered the facts, I concluded that Richard was innocent. His son had been removed and Hatch had been locked up, purely as a knee jerk reaction by the authorities to his new found fame. It was as if the cops and the child welfare people had gone overboard, unwilling to appear partial to this newly minted celebrity. The baby was thrown out with the bath water. As far as I could determine, in the history of The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families, no parent had ever been summarily treated this way. Worse than that, somebody had leaked Rich's mug shot and a confidential police report to The National Enquirer. I called my cousin Shiela and told her that if Richard needed any help dealing with the media, he should call me.
I didn't hear from him and then, a week later, a crew from NBC Dateline, came to Newport, promising him a fair opportunity to tell his story. They proceeded to cold cock him with an eight minute piece in which he was branded "psycho-Dad." The next day, Richard called me and said "Wow. I didn't see that coming." He sent me the paperwork on the abuse charge along with a history of the accomplishments he'd made with his adopted son Chris. When I digested it all and made more calls to Newporters who knew him, I was satisfied that Richard was a good father and that the charges were baseless. This was later born out when the civil charges against him were dismissed in July and the criminal charges dropped in late August. As a father myself, I really I felt for Richard and I told him that I'd do anything I could to help him clear his name.
In June I traveled to Newport and met with him at Gold's, a Middletown, R.I. coffee shop that he frequents. As Hatch began to tell me his story, the idea for a book emerged. Not many instant celebrities have more than their "15 minutes" to talk about. But Richard had led an extraordinary life full of highs and lows and radical hairpin turns. His SURVIVOR victory was just the latest mile marker. In fact, listening to him, I soon concluded that you couldn't tell one story without the other.
The tough knockdown lessons he'd learned from early childhood had formed the basis for his strategy on the Island. And now, even before anyone knew that Richard had become the "Sole Survivor," he'd been arrested and vilified. That offended my sense of fairness and I told him that no matter how well he did on the show, there was a book in all this. He had to write one to set the record straight.
So, in early July, Richard came to L.A. Suffering terribly from back pain, he lay on the floor of my office as I interviewed him and recorded hours of stories about his life. Wary that as a game show contestant, CBS might have some control over what he could do, I asked to see the agreement he'd signed with the network. I later learned that the Castaways had been asked to sign four separate agreements ranging from talent hold contracts to life rights options.
When Richard sent me the relevant two paragraphs from his underlying Survivor deal I was shocked at the extent to which CBS and Survivor LLC (the production company) controlled him. The life rights agreement was so stringent that it prevented him from gaining any "monetary advantage" from his SURVIVOR status for up to three years after the final episode of the series. Given that "episode" could be construed as the last installment of a series that might run for years, Richard was virtually locked up in perpetuity.
At my urging, Hatch agreed to contact CBS and on July 8th, 2000 the two of us went to Television City for a meeting. Because Richard wasn't even allowed to discuss SURVIVOR with an outsider like me, he went upstairs and I waited while he caucused with the series' executive producer Mark Burnett and Chris Ender, the affable chief of Prime Time Series Publicity for CBS. An hour later they emerged to meet me. Both Mark, Chris and Colleen Sullivan, Chris's associate, said they were not opposed to Richard telling his story. Mark noted that the book had to be mostly about Hatch's life, since Burnett's own play-by-play on the island, SURVIVOR: THE ULTIMATE GAME, would soon be in bookstores. I said that I'd work up a First Chapter and outline, provided that CBS gave Richard permission to do a book that discussed his SURVIVOR experience "in part."
We all smiled, shook, and took off. Then, because Mark was about to depart for Asia to scout locations for The Eco-Challenge (his other reality series) I worked nonstop and produced a seventy-five page first chapter and book outline entitled: SURVIVAL SKILLS FOR LIFE: AN OWNERS MANUAL.
We sent it to CBS for approval in late July and Richard got word that a "side letter" of permission would be forthcoming. In the meantime, I exposed the project to an agent at Janklow & Nesbit, one of the nation's top literary agencies. He was immediately interested, but agreed with my assessment that CBS permission was essential.
All summer long in no fewer than 35 e-mails, I urged Richard to nail down the side letter from CBS. Just as he'd assured the Castaways on the Island that he would protect their interests, Hatch promised me (in no uncertain terms) that he had enough influence with CBS for our book to sail through.
Suffice it to say, that he was dead wrong. And, in retrospect, I was dead wrong to believe him. The day after we made the $500,000 St. Martin's deal, it blew up when I learned, along with our agent, attorney and the publisher, that CBS was demanding final approval on all SURVIVOR-related lines in the manuscript. Stab. Blood in the water. "Bye bye baby." It was over.
Later in this book you'll be able to read play by play of that disaster. But it was one of the ex-Castaways who summed it up best. After Richard and I had parted company, I spoke to Stacey Stillman, the attorney and SURVIVOR Castaway who Richard had helped dispatch in Episode Three. She heard my story and smiled knowingly, "You've been Richard Hatched," she said. It was Stacey's way of saying that I was just the latest contestant in Richard's life to get "voted off the island."