The decision to base Survivor teams on race and ethnicity drags the issue out of the shadows
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Published August 25, 2006
The first call came late Wednesday, from a friend at USA Today who wanted my opinion about reality TV's latest excess: the decision by producers of CBS's Survivor series to separate its competing "tribes" of contestants by race and ethnicity.
That's right. In addition to the insanity of sticking 20 people on the Cook Islands, Survivor creator Mark Burnett has decided to add the friction of race and ethnic differences to the mix, splitting the teams into exclusively black, Asian, Hispanic and white competitors.
On Thursday, CNN's Headline News and CBS Radio also came calling. Intrigued by an analysis I'd posted on my blog Wednesday, they all wanted this critic of color to weigh in on the question of the moment: Is CBS now prepared to exploit racial strife for ratings gain?
Well, duh - of course. But I had a different take than many commentators who have quite rightly, observed that this is hardly what the Kerner Commission had in mind when it urged TV executives back in 1968 to fully integrate black people "into all aspects of televised programming."
I say, it's about time.
I've written before on how Burnett has used race as a subtext in his reality shows, particularly Survivor and the Apprentice.
On these shows, race difference plays out as a parable on assimilation - the people of color who understand white culture and can fit in survive, often by being as bland and undistinguished as possible.
Those who don't, wind up fulfilling the worst stereotypes. Their exclusion makes them racially paranoid, their inability to bond with their teammates makes them look lazy and their defensiveness looks like an empty excuse. Yes, Omarosa Manigault Stallworth, I'm talking about you.
Given that history, I don't blame those who are concerned about the image of minorities in modern media for feeling apprehensive about the latest Survivor. But at least Burnett is going to make race a front-and-center discussion, after years of shrugging off the implications of his portrayals.
This scheme follows Burnett's gimmicks of stirring up friction - and viewer interest - by dividing teams according to gender or education. Race and ethnicity seem the next frontiers for a reality TV showman determined to keep his powerhouse alive for another season.
You've got what you wanted, Mark. The world is watching. Here's hoping you show us something worth all the hoopla.
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 893-8521. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.