What Really Happened on the Survivor Island: A Conversation With Peter Lance

by Claire E. White

Note: Click here for an October, 2003 interview with Peter Lance about his latest book.

Millions of people tuned in to see the outcome of
Photo of Peter Lance
Investigative journalist and author Peter Lance.
CBS' reality show, Survivor, which was won by a Machiavellian schemer named Richard Hatch. While the rest of America spent the summer of 2000 mesmerized by Rich's antics, Hatch spent the summer being interviewed exhaustively by five time Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and bestselling author Peter Lance. Lance was slated to ghostwrite the tell-all book for which St. Martin's Press was willing to pay $500,000. But the book deal fell apart at the last minute because Hatch failed to disclose the full extent of the Draconian contract he had signed with CBS, although Hatch had known for days what the so-called "permission letter" really said: CBS demanded the right to edit the book line by line, and to delete anything it didn't like. Devastated by the depth of the lies he had been told, Lance began to dig a little deeper into the background of Hatch and began interviewing people about what really happened on the Island. As the former Chief Investigative Correspondent for ABC News, Lance was well-qualified for the task. What he found shocked him: evidence that might indicate that the outcome of Survivor may have been manipulated by CBS.

Determined to set the record straight, Lance decided to write his own book, detailing his experiences with Hatch and the shocking facts he uncovered in his investigation. The result is The Stingray: Survival Tactics of the Sole Survivor (Shadow Lawn Press), which is already making waves and prompting a series of frenzied denials from CBS. We spoke with Peter about his new book project, the Faustian contracts the Survivor contestants signed, and what it was like working with the infamous Richard Hatch.

What prompted you to write this book?

Cover of The Stingray: Lethal Tactics

of the Sole Survivor by Peter Lance
Click here
for ordering information.
Journalistically I backed into this. My initial contact with Richard Hatch "The Sole Survivor" was as an old family friend. Back in early May when I first became aware of the alleged child abuse charges against him, I contacted him through my cousin (who's his mother's oldest friend) and said that if he needed any advice on how to deal with the media, he should call me. I never heard from him, and then he did an interview with Dateline NBC that he was unhappy with. He felt that they had "set him up," in his words. He was particular upset with their use of the term "psycho-dad." So right after that Richard called me.

We began talking and he started telling me his life story, which is quite fascinating. He's lead a real two-steps-forward-one-step-back life. I finally went to Newport, R.I. his hometown and mine and we met. The idea for a book emerged. But immediately I was concerned that CBS might have some kind of control over his life rights. I had no idea until I saw the life rights section of the contract he'd signed, just how all encompassing their control was. Essentially the network could prevent Richard from deriving any "monetary advantage" over his Survivor fame for up to three years following the last airing of the final episode of the series. That meant if the series ran for 5 years, he was potentially locked up for 8.

I told Richard that it wouldn't be worth taking the time to prepare a book, if we didn't get CBS's permission up front. So in July he came to L.A. and had a meeting with CBS officials and Mark Burnett, the executive producer of Survivor. After the meeting I met with them and they said that they would give Richard permission (in the form of a "side letter") to do a book that at least discussed his Survivor experience in part.

I then prepared a 75 page first chapter and outline. It was titled: Survivial Skills for Life: an Owner's Manual. We submitted it to CBS on July 20th and all summer long I pretty much hounded Richard to get that CBS side letter. In the meantime I contacted Eric Simonoff, an agent with Janklow & Nesbit, one of the most respected literary agencies in the country. None of us had any idea of Richard's ultimate success on Survivor but Eric said he'd be interested in representing our book, provided that CBS permission was forthcoming.

The night of the Final Four Episode when Richard won, he jubilantly told me that he'd received the coveted CBS letter. The next day I called him and he read the "open" to it which said that the network was giving him permission to write a book, largely on his life; but a book that could contain some material on his Survivor experience.

We were all ecstatic. The agent went out with my book proposal and by the following Monday August 28th he had a bidding war going between St. Martin's Press, Simon and Schuster and Pocket Books. By the next day St. Martin's had won, with an offer worth a total of $500,000.00. We were all thrilled until the day after that when we got a look at the full text of the CBS letter which provided that the network had final approval of every word in the book relating to Survivor. Since we would have been on a four week crash production schedule to get the book out before Christmas, no publisher (including St. Martin's) would risk a half million dollar advance when a third party (CBS) could, theoretically have come in and red penciled a portion of the manuscript on the eve of press.

After a few days of recovering from the shell shock I started to think
"The mosaic of evidence that I began to assemble suggesting potential "manipulation" of the series by producers was also troubling. But personally, the saddest part of the experience for me was watching Richard Hatch as he became a victim of his own fame."
like a journalist instead of a ghost writer. Shortly thereafter Richard was up to host the open to the new season of Saturday Night Live on NBC, but then CBS nixed that. I wondered, if CBS had such control over the winner of Survivor, what kind of control did they have over the other 15 Castaways? I began investigating and discovered that the network was acting as a gatekeeper on virtually every "opportunity" presented to these newly minted celebrities. I also began to uncover evidence of some potential "manipulation" on the part of producers that might have effected the ultimate outcome of the series. So the idea for a different book emerged. This time it wouldn't be "the world according to Rich," but the first critical look at this extraordinary "reality" game show phenomenon.

How does your new book, The Stingray, differ from the book presented to St. Martin's Press?

Well, in addition to containing all of Richard's "inside moves" on the Island and the saga of his tumultuous life, it's full of behind-the-scenes information (that's sometimes startling) about how the series was produced. I interviewed a number of the Castaways, many of whom are now living in fear of network reprisals and I learned things that have never before been made public.

Part of the problem is that the same CBS gag order imposed on the "cast" and crew to keep secret the identity of the winner continues to inhibit the Castaways from freely discussing their Island experience with the press. But I think both hard core Survivor "junkies" as well as those people who were just peripherally exposed to the series, will find the book fascinating. That was already born out when we were praised by Rudy Reigns one of the most popular Survivor fan sites. The book is now linked on their site to Amazon.com and is selling quite well.

At great length the book also examines the issue of CBS control over the Survivor Castaways and what that's meant to their ability to "profit" or gain a "monetary advantage" after the series. I think viewers who believe the hype that they've all struck it rich on this show will be shocked. One principal in a lecture agency that's representing a number of them told me that he believes the Castaways have lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" as the result of CBS's control. They literally have had a network executive in New York acting as a gate keeper on virtually every offer that each of the Castaways has had. They've all done a lot of work promoting CBS/Viacom properties like MTV, Nickelodeon, ET and various CBS/Paramount series such as JAG and Becker, but the network has kept a tight leash on them when it came to other income opportunities. One of the four contracts the Castaways signed was a "Talent Hold" agreement preventing them from appearing on other networks without CBS permission until the year 2001. That was tremendously inhibiting for many of them in the three key fall months following the Survivor finale.

What was your impression of Rich when you first met him? When did your opinion of him begin to change?

I'll answer by quoting a small excerpt from The Stingray:

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 children helped me prepare a clip reel of "Rich's greatest hits" to send to publishers, I refused to see the man for who he really was.

Photo of Richard Hatch
Survivor Winner Richard Hatch.
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..."
Obviously I was as wrong to put my trust in Richard Hatch as the Pagong Tribe members who cozied up to him and then found themselves on the wrong side of the Tribal Council Bridge. Sue Hawk (the Wisconsin truck driver who was in a voting alliance with Rich) compared Hatch to a "snake." I prefer to use the metaphor of the stingray, a lethal marine mammal. During the series, as Rich fed the tribe members (only to conspire against them) he himself used the deadly rays as a weapon. In the months I spent with Richard I came to see him as the ultimate "stingray."

Reality programming has just about taken over the airwaves. Why is this kind of programming so popular? Do you see this trend decreasing or increasing in the future.

Sadly, these human "ant farms" are the wave of the future. In part because they're so much cheaper to produce and in part because they allow the networks to create "stars" that they can manipulate in ways that they could never exploit or control professional actors. Here's another excerpt from The Stingray:
The reality T.V. phenomenon is here to stay. The networks are developing a number of reality premises, but they may also be stepping back to examine the phenomenon. NBC had ordered 16 episodes of Chains of Love, but they just canceled it because of reported disagreements with the producer over the show's direction. Chains of Love, was a wacky Dutch import where four participants of one sex are cuffed together with a member of the opposite sex for five days in order to get a briefcase full of cash. Suggesting how desperate The Peacock Network was in airing such cheese, one news magazine raised the question: just how far are America's broadcasters willing to go in the pursuit of ratings? Clearly, the traditional rules of prime time television are changing by the week.

Suddenly, members of the K Mart set are jockeying for a shot at stardom along side professional actors. People who eat at Denny's are packing suitcases full of head shots and moving West to Tinseltown. In the feeding frenzy for ratings and less expensive programming, the networks are "casting" these common folk, "shooting" them and "editing" them like they were characters in a prime time drama. This without the safety nets that protect traditional performers under the hard-earned collective bargaining agreements of Guilds like SAG and AFTRA. What's worse, in the end, the life rights of these newly minted "celebrities" are being controlled in a way no traditional "actor" would stand for.
As an investigative journalist, what did you find most disturbing about the facts you uncovered in your research?

Clearly the revelations about network control of these good people was something that concerned me. The mosaic of evidence that I began to assemble suggesting potential "manipulation" of the series by producers was also troubling. But personally, the saddest part of the experience for me was watching Richard Hatch as he became a victim of his own fame. Part of The Stingray deals with the number of miscalculations Rich made after winning the $1 million. I said in the book:

As "King Richard," quickly found out, winning the throne was just the first step. The real key was understanding how to manage celebrity once he'd won. Hatch 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 is 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?
Recently Richard announced plans to do his own book. In fact, a portion of it has been excerpted in this week's US Weekly. I had hoped that given the problems he's faced since becoming "The Sole Survivor," Richard might have learned some lessons. In The Stingray I include Ten Tactics for future game show contestants in how to win the prize, but more importantly Ten Lessons for how to behave once you've won. From what I can see, Richard Hatch, who declares in his book that "I love me," hasn't learned a single one of the life lessons about the dangers of new found fame and how to translate sudden celebrity into lifelong success.

Perhaps he'll read The Stingray. My book holds up a critical "mirror" and asks the question "Who is the real Richard Hatch?" Maybe in his reaction to it, we'll find out.

** Peter Lance is a five-time Emmy winning investigative reporter and lawyer now working as a screenwriter and novelist. With a Masters Degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law, Lance spent the first 15 years of his career as a print reporter and network correspondent. He began his career as a reporter for his hometown paper, The Newport, R.I. Daily News. There he won the coveted Sevellon Brown Award from the A.P. Managing Editors Association. Lance next moved to WNET, the PBS flagship in New York, where he won an Emmy and the Ohio State Award as a producer and reporter for Channel 13's nightly news magazine The 51st State.

Later, while working as a writer and producer for WABC-TV Lance won his second Emmy along with the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism prize for Willowbrook: The People vs. the State of New York, an expose on a notorious institution for the mentally retarded. While getting his law degree, Lance worked as a Trial Preparation Assistant in the office of the District Attorney for New York County. Moving to ABC News as a field producer in 1978, Lance won yet another Emmy for his investigation of an arson-for-profit ring in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

In 1981 Lance became Chief Investigative Correspondent for ABC News. Over the next five years he covered hundreds of stories worldwide for ABC News' 20/20, Nightline and World News Tonight. He was a member of the first American crew into Indochina after the end of the Vietnam War. He chased rebel insurgents through the Plaine Des Jarres in Laos and members of the Gambino Family through the toxic wastelands of New Jersey. He tracked knife-happy surgeons in the Deep South and nuclear terrorists through the twisted streets of Antwerp. Then, in 1987, he decided to hang up his spurs.

Lance came to L.A. and began working as a writer and story editor for Michael Mann on two of his acclaimed NBC series: Crime Story and Miami Vice. In 1989 Lance became the co-executive producer and "show runner" on the fourth season of Wiseguy for CBS and in 1993 he co-created Missing Persons the ABC series starring Daniel J. Travanti. In recent years, he has served as a writer and consulting producer on such series as JAG (NBC) and The Sentinel (UPN). In 1997 Lance's first novel First Degree Burn became a national bestseller, ranking No. 24 on The Ingram A-List The Top 50 Requested Titles in Mystery-Detective Fiction. The film-noir mystery features FDNY Fire Marshal Eddie Burke.

Most recently Lance adapted Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, Bob Woodward's bestseller about William Casey for HBO and Terror.net, the story of the hunt for Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, The World Trade Center Bomber for Showtime. Currently Lance is writing and executive producing The Riverman, his adaptation of the bestselling book on Ted Bundy by Robert D. Keppel Ph.D. and William J. Birnes for Starz-Encore Pictures.