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01.31.11

Survivor Spy Exposed

After Survivor fan Jim Early was sued for revealing the show's secrets, he pointed a finger at one of its most popular players, Russell Hantz, as his source. Andy Dehnart reports.

After Survivor fan Jim Early was sued for revealing the show’s secrets, he pointed a finger at one of its most popular players, Russell Hantz, as his source. Andy Dehnart reports:

• Mark Burnett's company sued Early for successfully spoiling Seasons 19 and 20.
• Early began talking to Russell Hantz on the phone, who would tease information. Once Hantz saw the attention the information got on the Survivor Sucks message boards, Early said, “he just started coming out and telling me what happened: who was leaving, who won challenges."
• The Survivor cast members’ contract states that contestants may not reveal "the elimination of contestants and the selection of any winner." The penalty for doing so is "liquidated damages" of $5 million.
• Lawyers, according to Early, were less interested in him that where he had gotten the information. "I gave him an email from Russell spoiling something,” Early said. “They were very happy to get that email, and I have many, many more."
• An email message provided to The Daily Beast by Early that he says is from Hantz identifies the elimination order of two Survivor Samoa contestants, while another message says Hantz will call Early with accurate information about the show.
• Early told The Daily Beast that he gave up Hantz and is talking about him now "because of his attitude about the whole thing, and because Russell tried to implicate another player, an innocent player, who wasn't giving information."

Survivor cast member Russell Hantz, the stout, bald Texan whose cunning strategy and devious behavior has been both loved and hated by fans ever since he first appeared on Survivor Samoa in 2009, is about to be on the show again when its 22nd season begins Feb. 16. He recently addressed fans of the CBS reality series on Facebook: "If you love the game, you won't go to spoiler sites. Like who really wants to know who wins the Super Bowl before you watch it play out? Don' t be a retard, lol just watch it play out and you will like what you see," he wrote.

That is ironic, because Russell Hantz has been identified by the person who published spoilers for Survivor Samoa and Survivor Heroes vs. Villains to be the source of the leaks—information that triggered a lawsuit.

Spoiling reality shows—which includes revealing participants before they are officially announced, identifying who will be eliminated or even who will win in a competition, or giving out other plot-revealing information before it is broadcast—has become common practice online, from "Reality Steve" Carbone's information about ABC's The Bachelor to the message board Reality Fan Forum, where members follow CBS' The Amazing Race's production as it films (months before it airs) and identify its cast members using Facebook and other sources. Survivor has been subject to speculation and spoiling since it began in 2000, but it reached new levels during the 2009-2010 TV season.

That's because Jim Early, who posted under the screen name missyae (pronounced "missy A E"), at a website called Survivor Sucks, had accurate advance information about Survivor's 19th and 20th seasons because, he said, "the source was actually out there playing."

“When I met [Russell], it all became so easy,” Early said. “All I had to do was pick up the phone and say ‘hello’ and I had anything I wanted.”

Late last year, Early was sued by executive producer and Survivor creator Mark Burnett's DJB Inc. for "misappropriation of trade secrets” and "tortious interference with contract." The lawsuit was initially filed in August by San Francisco lawyer Adam Brezine of Holmes Roberts & Owen, which has represented the RIAA in its lawsuits against people who download music, and sought to discover Early's identity. It was eventually dismissed without prejudice on Jan. 13 because of its target's "cooperation .. including the identification of source(s) of confidential information," the dismissal says. (Brezine did not respond to a request for comment.)

Survivor wasn't named in the lawsuit against Early, which instead referred to the show as "a product that generates substantial interest among members of the public, and which releases information about the venture to the public on a periodic basis during business cycles. To protect the value of the business, it is vitally important that information about what is to be released to the public next in a particular business cycle be kept secret."

But a proposed settlement agreement—which Early said he did not sign—is between both CBS Broadcasting and DJB, which the settlement identifies as "a California corporation involved in the production of Survivor." The settlement demanded that Early would no longer "communicate with any persons regarding the information, including, but not limited to, posting on the Internet under the alias 'missyae' or otherwise,'" and it also wanted him to turn over his hard drive and other records. The settlement also insisted that information about Survivor "has been and continues to be confidential, until such time as it is formally disclosed to the public by CBS."

The Survivor cast members’ contract states that contestants may not talk to the media without CBS publicity's permission, nor may they reveal "the elimination of contestants and the selection of any winner." The penalty for doing so is "liquidated damages" of $5 million.

That raises the question: Now that the lawsuit has been dismissed, will Survivor's network or producer use the information they received to sue or otherwise punish one of their own stars? When asked that specific question Monday—and to respond generally about the lawsuit—CBS issued a statement on behalf of the show. The statement said that because Survivor has been “blessed with a rabid fanbase” who want to predict its outcome, there are “periodic claims of unauthorized leaks from people connected to the show.”

“We’ve investigated some of these claims,” the statement reads in part. “The fervent activity of these sites often generates a confusing web of backstabbing, claims of misinformation, and Internet alliances… Outwit, outplay, outlast. It happens more than just on the air.”

The lawsuit used more severe language: It cited "wrongful acquisition and anonymous dissemination over the Internet of plaintiff's valuable trade secret information, which is both a misappropriation of those trade secrets and tortious interference with contract, as the only parties with knowledge of the trade secrets are bound by contracts containing a strict confidentiality provision." It said Early "improperly obtained information about developments with respect to the plaintiff's business and then systematically 'leaked' that information over the Internet prior to the scheduled public release of the information. This leaked information causes damage to the value of the business because it eliminates, for at least a portion of the plaintiff's market, the element of surprise that plaintiff and others work so hard to cultivate and protect."

Early learned of the lawsuit, which initially named him as John Doe, after his ISP's records were subpoenaed, although the lawyer contacted him via email soon after. Eventually, Early was served with the lawsuit, and said his lawyers "advised me what to do" and "they always thought it was just a scare tactic" on CBS' part "because I have no contract with them, I have no obligation to them, I didn't do anything wrong. I actually promoted the show for free."

Jordan Susman, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in entertainment litigation, reviewed the lawsuit and said, "the trade secret claim is not an outrageous claim," and said the interference with contract part applies if "you know someone has a contract with someone and you get in the way of that." However, Susman added, "I don't know of a case off the top of my head where [a trade secret claim has] been applied to the secrets of a TV show" and said the "real claim is the breach of contract against the person who spilled the beans. … You want the person who breached the contract, but if someone were to hire me, I could see going after Mr. Early and trying to get a judgment against him on this because you could argue it did economically damage your product."

Early said he eventually told the attorney Russell Hantz was responsible for the leaked information, and provided email correspondence as proof, because the lawyer who'd filed the suit "kept pushing for me to give them a name," so "I did tell them Russell Hantz was their leak. I was told by their attorney that his client appreciated it very much and thanked me very much." Early also said, "I gave him an email from Russell spoiling something. … They were very happy to get that email, and I have many, many more." An email message provided to The Daily Beast by Early that he says is from Hantz identifies the elimination order of two Survivor Samoa contestants, while another message says Hantz will call Early with accurate information about the show.

Early told The Daily Beast he gave up Hantz and is talking about him now "because of his attitude about the whole thing, and because Russell tried to implicate another player, an innocent player, who wasn't giving information." (Hantz did not respond to a request for a comment.)

Early said the attorney "was pretty adamant up front, at the beginning, that they didn't really want me, they wanted to know the leaks, they wanted names. They wanted my hard drive, they wanted me to get rid of my email accounts… they wanted phone records, they wanted any notes I had, emails—they wanted any-and-everything I had."

Hantz appeared on both Survivor Samoa and Survivor Heroes and Villains, which were filmed back-to-back in the summer of 2009 and aired that fall and in the spring of 2010, respectively. After they were taped, Early first made contact with Hantz when someone posted Hantz's contact information online; Early said he called the posted number to "warn him" that someone had revealed Hantz's private information. Hantz answered the phone, and during that conversation, Early offered Hantz his phone number in case Russell "ever wanted to talk."

Early said Hantz called back that night, initially "teasing" with information about the show, as he would "let me try to guess things." Early posted that information online, and says that once Hantz "saw the attention [that information] was getting over at Survivor Sucks, so then he just started coming out and telling me what happened: who was leaving, who won challenges." As Early said, some could tell that "it was all coming from [Hantz's] point of view," which led to speculation from members of the community that missyae was actually Russell Hantz's wife.

Early said he began spoiling on another message board "the old-fashioned, hard way" during Survivor Pearl Islands in 2003, when, like many others, he'd piece together clues from interviews, video footage, and other sources. But "when I met [Russell], it all became so easy," Early said. "All I had to do was pick up the phone and say 'hello' and I had anything I wanted." Eventually, "I was spoiling Samoa and [Hantz] was really wanting to get the word out for all-stars, Heroes vs. Villains," so information about that season followed. Early's reputation for spoiling the show led to other sources of information; he said he was able to publish names of cast members for Survivor Nicaragua because "someone just dropped [hotel records] to me in the mail."

Since Survivor's first season, CBS has had a reputation for tightly controlling information about its reality shows. (In the interest of full disclosure, as they've done to other journalists, the network's publicists have cut off my access to the cast and crew, citing coverage that didn't reflect the show positively, despite my frequent praise for Survivor. CBS has also challenged my reporting on the series.)

However, information still leaks out, both intentionally and accidentally. Last fall, call sheets left in a Nicaragua hotel room were published by The Smoking Gun, and gave away the big twist for the show's upcoming 22nd season.

Spoiling for Survivor has traditionally come from both detailed analysis of public information, such as interviews and TV footage, and insider information, and spoilers are discussed and sometimes revealed on Survivor Sucks, an online community where mostly anonymous users have interaction that ranges from friendly discussion to aggressive name-calling and comments that other participants should commit suicide for having disagreeable ideas.

One of its administrators, identified only by the screen name Antithesys, wrote in an email message that Sucks is "an openly hostile environment" that "is very harsh on new posters with supposedly sourced information, and missy was no exception." Part of that is because, Antithesys wrote, that "politics formed around these rivalries [between different ways of spoiling], and spoiling became a 'game' which was often as interesting (and indeed, in those middle seasons, more interesting) than the show itself," he said. Early agreed, saying that of those who follow spoilers, "half of them tune in hoping I'll be wrong."

Early's reputation in the spoiling community has been polarizing. He had participated in Survivor Sucks previously under different screennames, but he was banned after his "posts became increasingly less about actual spoiling and more about conspiratorial rants against those in the community he considered his enemies," Antithesys said. But in 2009, Early's accurate spoilers received attention and his posting "pace quickened due to a bit of competition from another newcomer named SurvivorsUnite, and no more than a few weeks into the airing of Samoa, the two of them combined to flesh out the entire bootlists of both Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains, something which had never been done in public before," Antithesys said, adding that while Early's "negative qualities tend to outshine his dedication and enthusiasm," he "spoiled three seasons. That can't be taken away from him; he's a first-ballot Spoiler Hall of Famer."

In October, about two months after the lawsuit was first filed, Early posted casting information about Season 22, Survivor Redemption Island, claiming that Carrie Prejean and Kimbo Slice would be cast members. That wasn't true, and Antithesys says members of the community "concluded that missy's source had betrayed him and was no longer trustworthy, meaning missy himself was no longer trustworthy," so "he condemned Sucks for, well, essentially being mean to him, and left, using his established alumni connections to form a Facebook group." He added that Early's "info is certainly missed, but his name isn't brought up without someone reminding everyone about his collapse."

Early said that "the fake names and everything, that came from Russell. He's the one that planted that information. He's the one who leaked the bad information." (In a recent Facebook posting, Hantz disparaged Early’s bad spoilers about Prejean and Slice: “that missyae is the same person that said kimbo slice and carrie prejean was on survivor 22 lmao.”)

If another cast member came to him with information, Early said, "I probably wouldn't do anything differently. I'd probably put the information out there because I still don't see where it harms anything." He cites the "audience out there" for spoilers and said it was "fun giving out the information because there's a big, big following," and added that, "it doesn't hurt the show or the ratings."

Early now hosts chats with cast members on his Facebook group, Survivor Whispers, and said its name is ironic. "I thought it was kind of funny that they wanted to make me hush, and I created a group called Whispers," he said. "I hope they've got a good sense of humor, too."

Xtra Insight: DJB vs Early—PDF of the Complaint

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.