Special Report: The Dangerous Side of Survival TV - Today's News: Our Take | TVGuide.com Special Report: The Dangerous Side of Survival TV Oct 29, 2014 04:50 PM ET by David Peisner Cody Lundin On the wall of a tiny wood cabin outside Prescott, Arizona, hangs a large poster of Cody Lundin staring intensely with a thin half-smile. Below him is a quote: "Learn survival skills from an expert." Lundin was one of the stars of the Discovery Channel series Dual Survivalfor three and a half of the show's first four seasons, until he departed abruptly late last year. He has been a survival instructor, running his Aboriginal Living Skills School, since the early '90s. This cabin is ostensibly the school's store, though there's little for sale beyond some knives, a few magnesium fire-starters, and small tubes of AfterBite. Outside, it's storming and surprisingly chilly for late August. "It's actually monsoon season," says Lundin over the din of rain and hail pelting the cabin's roof. The flesh-and-blood version of Lundin doesn't look much different from the poster. He's a big dude with broad shoulders, steely blue eyes, and — almost always — bare feet. He wears his sandy-brown hair in two long braids that are tied off with ribbons and held back by a red bandanna. Dressed in a green T-shirt and jean shorts, he looks like a cross between Willie Nelson, Sitting Bull, and Pippi Longstocking. Dual Survival's premise is to drop two survival experts with opposing philosophies — one, like Lundin, trying to adapt to nature; the other, a military vet, trying to conquer it — into an inhospitable location and watch how they cope for three days while extricating themselves from the situation. When the show debuted in 2010, Lundin was paired withDave Canterbury, who was billed as an "army-trained sniper." The show was a hit, but after Season 2, reports emerged that Canterbury had exaggerated his military credentials. He was replaced by Joe Teti, a former Special Forces operative. The ratings stayed strong, so it came as something of a shock when Lundin was replaced halfway through Season 4 by Matt Graham, another outdoor-skills expert, who had appeared on the Discovery survival show Dude, You're Screwed. Discovery never made an official statement on Lundin's exit, but in an interview, Eileen O'Neill, global group president at Discovery Studios, said, "From time to time we've changed talent on a couple of different shows. It was a matter of freshening the show. Matt brings a different skill set to the more naturalistic approach to survival, so I think it worked out well for everybody in the end." Well, maybe not everybody. Lundin says he was fired and that his termination was the culmination of several long-running arguments with the network, production company Original Media, and his costars regarding the show's credibility, its commitment to the health and safety of the cast, crew, and viewers, and what he calls an "appalling lack of leadership." (When asked to respond to these and other allegations, Original Media, through its parent company, Endemol, declined to comment on the record.) "You're dealing with people who have no experience in my profession who are making a show on survival skills," Lundin says. "They asked me many, many times to do stupid s--t that I refused to do. 'Fall into cold water so you can get hypothermic.' 'Scale that cliff.' 'Can you climb that coconut tree?' I try not to put out dangerous s--t that's going to be replicated by someone to their detriment. They hated me for it." O'Neill says that "Cody's entitled to his opinion," but "health and safety are first and foremost" on all Discovery shows. What may seem to be simply an argument between an aggrieved ex-reality show star and his former employer is actually much more troubling. The issues at the heart of theDual Survival dispute, it turns out, are hardly unique. Over the past few years, as the survival-TV genre has exploded, newer shows like Naked and Afraid, Survive the Tribe, and Ultimate Survival Alaska have joined already established franchises like Dual Survival and Survivorman, with many more in the pipeline. "There's a pioneer spirit that exists in these types of shows, a sense of being the master of your own destiny when you're in a survival situation, that people really find appealing," says Brian Catalina, an executive producer of Ultimate Survival Alaska. "That's a part of our cultural DNA that we're not that far removed from." Increased competition, though, has created an atmosphere in which each new series seems compelled to prove it's the roughest, toughest, most perilous one. This, in turn, tends to push the casts and crews toward taking more risks or at least appearing as if they're taking more risks. Either way, says Lundin, is a problem. "Reality TV is dangerous," he says, "when it involves professions that can kill people." The roots of survival TV can be traced to England, where, beginning in 1994, Ray Mears, a British survival instructor, made several series for the BBC, including Tracks, Extreme Survival, and World of Survival. His tone was decidedly sober and instructional: Mears wasn't surviving in the wild, but rather teaching the skills — the bushcraft — needed to survive. Survivor debuted in the U.S. on CBS in 2000, and although it was more Lord of the Fliesthan Into the Wild, it seemed to open the door to the idea of reality shows based around outdoor endurance. In the early 2000s, Lundin himself filmed two separate TV pilots, Lost in the Wild and Stranded, neither of which was picked up. The first series to gain traction was Survivorman, which debuted on Discovery in 2004 and is still in production today. The show features Les Stroud, a Canadian survival expert, filming himself, alone with no crew, for a week in various wilderness locales. Survivorman feels more meditative than many of the shows in its wake, but its realism earned Stroud a steady following. Early on, though, Discovery hoped to make the show appear more dangerous. "I was pressured for over a year by one high-up executive who wanted me to cheat Survivorman," says Stroud. "I just told them no every single time. I'd ruin the show if I did that. "If I can be accused of anything, it's like, 'Les's show can be a bit slow, maybe even boring,'" he continues. "The reality is, seven days alone in the wilderness can be very slow and tedious. It's difficult to show that, but I resist the temptation to splash it all up with pranks and stunts." In 2006, Discovery debuted Man vs. Wild, which Stroud claims was a direct result of his refusal to compromise Survivorman. Man vs. Wild was built around Bear Grylls, a charismatic former British army reservist. If Survivorman was the survival equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman drama, Man vs. Wild was a Michael Bay spectacle. During his excursions, Grylls was often seen running down mountains, sliding off glaciers, crossing freezing rivers, rappelling from cliffs, hunting large game, and, in one memorable instance, MacGyvering an enema for himself on a life raft. The show's ratings soon dwarfed those of Survivorman, but a backlash hit full force when word leaked that, among other things, Grylls was getting unseen help from his crew and occasionally staying in hotels rather than the makeshift shelters he'd constructed on the show. Grylls took the criticism in stride. "The hotel stuff was hard, and I was partly to blame for that," he says now. "I'd been away from my family for seven episodes, and suddenly, we were filming in Scotland, so I thought, 'I'll get them up and spend the night with them.' When all that came out, it was a massive can of worms. I look back now and think, 'That was a mistake.'" Steve Rankin was a producer on Man vs. Wild, brought in to, in his words, "clean that mess up." Following the revelations, disclaimers were added to the broadcasts, "so there was no room for misinterpretation," says Rankin. Man vs. Wild continued until 2011, after which Grylls moved on to a series of similarly inclined shows, including NBC's Get Out Alive and his latest, Running Wild, which features him trekking through the wilderness with a different celebrity each week. Grylls remains a piñata for criticism, particularly from other survival TV stars, who question his shows' authenticity and decry his adrenalized, Hollywood approach to survival. "There's a lot of bad survival taught in these shows," says Stroud, "and Bear Grylls's versions were some of the most atrocious versions of what you should do in survival situations." Even Grylls admits his shows don't always promote the smartest wilderness practices. "The truth is, good survival requires you take no risks, stay put, make yourself safe, wait for rescue," he says. "But that's boring TV. I want to bring an adventure element to it, because that's what I love. Man vs. Wild was a worst-case scenario show. It wasn't a bushcraft show." Rankin says many of the techniques Grylls demonstrated on Man vs. Wild aren't intended to be replicated by viewers. "That show was made with a view of, 'Here's the really cool stuff Bear does. Only Bear can do it, because he's Bear Grylls.' It's not like, 'Hey, anybody can do that!'" In 2012, a 29-year-old man froze to death during a trek into the Scottish highlands, a trip reportedly inspired by Grylls's show. That same year, another reported Man vs. Wild fan disappeared in the Smoky Mountains. While it's unfair to blame Grylls or anyone else for viewers' foolishness, shows like his certainly make survival look much simpler than it is. Steve Watts, a North Carolina-based survival instructor who has been teaching outdoor skills for nearly 40 years, says he's seen TV's influence on his clients. "Some people have this idea that they'd like to be in a real survival situation," he says. "It's sort of glamorized." This can lead to unwise risk-taking, which in turn can result in situations that require expensive search-and-rescue operations, serious health consequences, and worse. Lundin believes survival programming's influence on viewers shouldn't be underestimated. "In a real emergency situation, when people are scared for their lives," he says, "the stuff that starts coming back is what they see off television." Discovery Channel seems inclined to agree. Its 2010 special Discovery Saved My Life featured stories of real people who'd survived harrowing brushes with death thanks to tips they remembered from Man vs. Wild and other shows on the network. But if Discovery claims this kind of credit, shouldn't it also have to accept a measure of responsibility when things go bad? "The problem is dead people don't talk," Lundin says. "If this TV craze was about the medical profession, people would be in jail." By the late 2000s, Discovery was clearly all-in on survival. Out of the Wild premiered in 2008, running for three seasons. Two years later came Dual Survival and Man, Woman, Wild, which followed a similar template but with ex-Green Beret Mykel Hawke and his wife as the two survivalists. Hawke hoped the show would be an extension of his work as a survival instructor. "I wanted the core to be teaching people," he says. "How do you pick where you're going to set up your shelter? How do you go about doing things the most efficient way without a bunch of stunts and crazy drama?" Discovery, he claims, had other ideas. "The network didn't really appreciate that I wanted to keep it realistic and practical," he says. "I fought with them tooth and nail the first season." But Hawke had only so much control. During planning for an early episode, he impressed upon the production company, Renegade 83, the dangers of filming in Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. "I tried to explain, 'We cannot film in the middle of the desert in the middle of the day in the middle of the summer. Let's bring some night-vision equipment and film primarily at dusk and dawn.' They said no. They forced us to film in the middle of the day, and that's why my wife got heat stroke and nearly died." (Renegade 83 did not respond to requests for comment.) Lundin initially agreed to do Dual Survival for several reasons: to correct what he saw as the flawed advice being offered on other shows, improve attendance at his school, and make some money. But on reflection, he thinks the show's premise was faulty from the start. It was immediately clear to him that neither of his two partners, Canterbury or Teti, knew much about outdoor survival and that their military backgrounds taught them few useful survival skills. "The military's main role is to take life. The main goal of an outdoor-survival instructor is to save life," Lundin says. "They are diametrically opposed. So DualSurvival from the get-go is a f---ed-up thing. It's like having Dual Plumbers and one of them is an electrician." Hawke, who served 24 years in the Army, agrees. "There's a myth that military people know a damn thing about survival," he says. According to Lundin, during casting for Dual Survival, neither Original Media nor Discovery seemed concerned about the stars' qualifications. "We went for a chemistry test — not a competency test," he says. "You could know nothing about survival, but if we play well on camera, that's what they're looking for." In Lundin's opinion, this attitude infects nearly all survival TV. Many people presented as experts simply aren't, and it's difficult, he admits, for the average viewer to know the difference. No organization bestows the title "survival instructor" on qualified individuals. But those who are credible should have extensive experience and the proper mind-set. "Any real survival instructor is a risk mitigator," he says. "Whenever you see a survival show that enhances or creates risk, you're dealing with either a phony, a fraud, or someone who's sold out for money and fame." Despite his reservations, Lundin enjoyed shooting early episodes of Dual Survival. Though he didn't think much of Canterbury's skills, their oddball dynamic worked. But when he found that Canterbury had inflated his military record and Discovery hadn't properly vetted him, Lundin was "disgusted." "I've kept my reputation as clean as possible because people are trusting me with their lives," he says. "When I'm in the National Enquirer next to a guy with a yellow circle around his head, how would you feel?" His partnership with Teti seemed rocky from the start. In Teti's first episode, Lundin explains why drinking your own urine is a terrible idea. Teti does it anyway. A few episodes later, in New Mexico, against Lundin's advice, Teti insists on killing a rattlesnake. Then in Hawaii, Teti kills a wild boar with a spear he made. The focus on the spectacular over the sensible wore on Lundin. Much emphasis was placed on hunting, despite the fact that, during a 72-hour survival ordeal, starvation is a virtual impossibility, so expending calories stalking big game is foolish. Reached by email, Teti admits, "You won't starve in three days, but the purpose of the show is to teach the viewer skills they'll need in the event they're caught in a real-world survival situation. Many times, that may go on longer." As Season 4 began, Lundin and Teti continued to butt heads, but since the show was built on the idea of friction between two opposing personalities, Lundin's departure midway through the season was puzzling. Discovery and Original Media put together a "behind the scenes" episode they hoped would explain his exit. In it, Lundin was shown laughing uproariously at inappropriate moments, tossing their gear off a cliff into water, and appearing to have trouble coping with the show's rigors. His arguments with Teti were shown growing progressively fiercer, culminating in a colossal blowout in Norway that was depicted as the effective end of their partnership. As Teti sees it, "When Season 4 kicked off, I started calling Cody out on things that I wouldn't have in Season 3 for the sheer fact I was brand new to TV and was knocking the rust off my survival skills. We're both type A personalities. Add some stress and polar opposite opinions about how one should conduct [himself] in a survival situation and you can have explosive results. I think Cody was just at the end of his rope with the show." Lundin refers to his final episode of Dual Survival as the "defamation episode" and maintains it was edited purposefully to make him look bad. The Norway trip came on the heels of visits to Sri Lanka and Oman and was to be part of a run of four episodes scheduled back-to-back, a punishing itinerary that the network insisted on but that Lundin believes displayed a blatant disregard for the cast and crew's well-being. In earlier seasons, they had taped only two episodes in a row, and even then, Lundin was hospitalized in Romania during Season 3 with extreme exhaustion and a respiratory infection. When he was told the workload would be doubled for Season 4, "I knew that was a bad idea." Because of the schedule, Lundin says, "injuries were much more common in Season 4." After the Norway incident, he met with the producers to discuss these problems. About a week later, he says, he was fired. (Discovery wouldn't confirm or deny the specifics of Lundin's departure.) In early October, Teti's membership in the Special Forces Association was revoked following questions about whether he, like Canterbury, exaggerated his military experience. Only 10 people in the last 50 years have been similarly dismissed from the group. As of mid-October, plans for Teti to appear in Dual Survival's upcoming fifth season had not changed. In the last few years, several networks have dipped their toes into the survival genre, including National Geographic (Ultimate Survival Alaska, Survive the Tribe), the Travel Channel (Lost Survivors), NBC (Get Out Alive, Running Wild), and even the Weather Channel (Fat Guys in the Woods), but Discovery is still the most deeply committed to it. Part of the disconnect between the network and folks like Lundin, Hawke, and Stroud may be the result of the culture clash that happens when television executives work with people who spend most of their time outdoors and often boast about how little they watch TV. Another issue, though, is simply differing priorities. According to Discovery's O'Neill, over the years, the network has developed some basic guidelines for survival programming. "There's a little acronym we use — CLAS: characters, location, adversity, and skills," she says. "Those four components are dialed up and down depending on the show, but they're generally core to any of the successful shows we've done." Perhaps most important is, "It has to be a brutally raw experience for viewers. They've got to understand and appreciate that that participant is being incredibly challenged by their circumstances and environment." The network's latest survival blockbuster is Naked and Afraid, which pairs a different man and woman each episode, in a different location, attempting to endure 21 days with no clothes and only one survival item they've each brought along. Initial reaction to the show seemed to be a collective cultural groan. "I was offended reality TV had come to this," says Alison Teal. The self-styled "female Indiana Jones" was approached about appearing on the show and initially declined, but Teal says she was eventually convinced, "after about a year of communicating with them and realizing it wasn't about competition and money. It was about true survival in this very Adam and Eve way." She appeared on the third episode, surviving three weeks on an island in the Maldives with an ex-Marine. Turning 21 days of filming — approximately 400 to 500 hours of footage, according to Mathilde Bittner, one of the show's supervising producers — into an hour-long show means leaving a lot on the cutting-room floor. The series was criticized after its 2013 debut episode when it came to light that producers had omitted footage of one participant getting food and fluids through an IV after she fell dangerously ill. Bittner, who worked on that episode, maintains that the information was left out simply because "it wasn't germane to the story," though later episodes have included medical interventions. Despite speculation that cast members may have gotten help from the crew, efforts to ensure the experience is as brutal as it appears seem real. "Until I actually got on the island, I half expected them to hand us a hamburger on the side or say, 'You're going to die; take some water,'" Teal says. "But it was very much like being in survival jail, where you almost inadvertently stopped liking the crew because they're your prison guards. My partner and I had a conversation on Day 16 about who on the crew we were going to eat because we were so hungry." Survivalists can quit — or "tap out" in the show's parlance — when they've had enough, but, not surprisingly, people who sign up for 21 days in the wild, naked with a stranger, can have a tendency to push themselves further than is healthy. On the other hand, sometimes producers are faced with survivalists who want to quit just a few days in. "It's very common on Day 2 or 3; people start wanting to go home," says Bittner. "A big part of what I do is remind them why they signed up, reminding them of their inner strength. When your will starts to dwindle, your mind will come up with any excuse for you to leave. You have to be good at reading them and figuring out if there's still a little bit more to them than what even they believe they are capable of. You push for that." The real-life dangers of this scenario should be apparent. Although medics are on hand to consult, having producers — who have neither survival nor medical training and are tasked primarily with bringing back good footage — pushing survivalists to their limits could be a recipe for disaster. Already, there have been close calls. One Naked and Afraid cast member contracted malaria, spotted fever, and the bacterial infection leptospirosis; another, Manu Toigo, caught dengue fever and nearly bled to death. Rankin, the former Man vs. Wild producer, is an executive producer of Naked and Afraidand has been in the field for roughly a dozen episodes. "Safety is always our primary concern," he says. "We conduct a thorough risk assessment of the area. We encourage the cast to get into the environment and exploit its resources without putting themselves at undue risk. Of course, we're going into environments where there are genuine hazards. We try to minimize risk but can never eliminate risk altogether." He would know. While scouting the Costa Rica episode, Rankin was bitten by a fer-de-lance, an extremely venomous snake, and rushed to the hospital. He sustained serious damage to his foot. Had that happened to one of the survivalists at night, when crew members rest at their base camp, the result could have been fatal. Most deaths in the wilderness are more mundane. Watts, the North Carolina-based survival instructor, says, "The No. 1 killer in the outdoors is hypothermia. You get wet, your body core drops, and you're gone. It can happen in hours." At times, weather conditions have prevented the Naked and Afraid crew from reaching the survivalists for days. Certainly, there's an argument that the cast members know the risks involved when they sign up, but isn't there something disturbing about watching a show that appears to be gambling with people's lives? This, though, is the direction survival TV seems headed. One new show, Tethered, involves two people tied together with a rope. Other shows in various states of production include one that places contestants alone in the wilderness for six weeks, and still another hopes to send them out for six months. And National Geographic just announced The Raft, which will maroon two pairs of strangers at sea, and another show that will see if an average Joe can survive in the wilderness with an expert offering instruction through an earpiece. Hawke believes the networks have misunderstood the appeal of these shows. "People are interested in survival because they're scared of what's going on with the government, the world, the population, with diseases, so they're looking for every bit of edge and knowledge they can get," he says. "The networks view it as, 'These people want more danger, so let's give them more danger.' What they're creating is a culture that is fast heading toward films like The Running Man, where they become gladiator-style snuff films, putting people in harm's way in hopes that something will happen and they'll get big ratings." Back at the cabin, the storm has mellowed and Lundin's sitting, eating tuna from a can. His cell phone dings and he shows me an email from a production company. "'New survival show,'" he reads. "'Does not involve nudity. Just 42 days in the wild relying on nothing but your skills, your smarts, and your will to survive.' Blah, blah, blah." He's also been approached about a show where he would lead 12 beauty queens into the wilderness wearing only their crowns and sashes. "I don't know what to say about that." Lundin hasn't given up on survival TV altogether. Right now he's working on his own show, something he'll potentially distribute online. "I know it can work," he says. "I already have the fan base. I'll be my own network, my own production company, and partner with companies for distribution." He says he'd consider appearing on another show where he wasn't calling the shots if he felt good about the people he was working with. The potential for TV is too great to write it off. Even for all the problems on Dual Survival, there was a silver lining. "I was teaching hundreds of thousands of people real skills," he says. "This weekend I led a course. I taught 12 people. You can only do so much hands-on." He puts down the tuna and nods toward the open doorway. "If I can be part of a show that gets kids to turn off the TV and go outside, I've done my job."