An island divided
A racially diverse group of reality TV veterans consider Survivor's latest gimmick.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published September 21, 2006
When the producers of Survivor decided to segregate teams in their newest edition by race, they called it a "social experiment."
So I decided to answer their experiment with one of my own: gathering a racially and ethnically diverse crew of reality TV veterans to watch the Sept. 14 debut episode and react.
Survivor: Thailand cast member Jan Gentry and I watched at the downtown office of the St. Petersburg Times. Bachelor winner Mary Delgado chimed in by speakerphone from Missouri, where she was competing in a fishing tournament with the guy who picked her on national television, fiance Byron Velvick. And Omarosa Manigault Stallworth, the most infamous contestant from the first season of Survivor creator Mark Burnett's other gigantic reality success, The Apprentice, watched in Los Angeles, e-mailing her comments.
And though this jury of a white woman, a black woman, a Hispanic woman and a black man all watched the same 60-minute debut, our conclusions were very different.
"The race separation didn't bother me," said Delgado, a Cuba native who became the first woman of color to be picked by a bachelor on ABC's reality romance competition.
"What Burnett seems to be trying to do is see if the teams will fight amongst each other . . . and that's already happening," she added, predicting that one member from each tribe eventually would be stuck on another team to ratchet up the race tension. "When a team must eject a member, are they going to vote off that one person that's a different race, or are they going to vote off the weakest link?"
During last week's episode, viewers saw little interaction between tribes, as each group - Asian-American (Puka), African-American (Hiki), Hispanic (Aitu) and white (Raro) - was dispatched to its own camp.
Generational divisions emerged among the Asian tribe, and gender friction on the African-American team led to jazz musician Sekou Bunch becoming the first person voted off the show. Heavy metal guitarist Billy Garcia was shown lounging while teammates on the Hispanic tribe were working.
That's a sure route to ejection, said Gentry, a 50-something elementary school teacher from Lutz who earned third-place honors on Survivor: Thailand in 2002. "Producers told me early on: 'Jannie, remember: The game is always on,' " she said.
But there were also troubling signs: The black team lost the challenge because it failed to assemble a boat. The Asian team won the challenge by assembling the boat and another set of puzzles fastest, feeding another stereotype.
"What it is really about, in my humble opinion . . . has little to do with the bogus social experiment that the puppet master Mark Burnett is conducting," wrote Stallworth, who fought with teammates and accused one of calling her the n-word in The Apprentice's 2004 debut edition.
"The bottom line is that Mark Burnett is playing the race card, with no consideration to the long-lasting social implications of this show," she wrote. "This show manipulates - not imitates - life in America. (And) because Mark Burnett . . . has the luxury - and not the burden - of dealing with race in his day-to-day life, he will never understand."
If the race segregation was a ratings ploy, it didn't work: Although Nielsen Media Research reported that the show was No. 3 in the ratings for last week, the episode was the lowest-rated premiere in the past five seasons with 17.7-million viewers.
Velvick, a professional bass fisherman who relocated to Tampa with Delgado after their Bachelor stint ended, couldn't believe how "hypersensitive" some had become about Survivor's race segregation. He cared so little about the issue, he didn't even watch the episode with his fiancee last week.
But then Velvick let slip a telling truth: During his Bachelor run, producers told him he made a bit of history, as the first guy to choose a black woman among the final dozen contestants.
"I didn't really see it as a color issue," he said. "I thought she was attractive and I liked spending time with her - and (producers were) making a big deal of the fact that there's an African-American girl who is down to the final 12."
Delgado, now 38, said Bachelor producers stereotyped her as an older woman desperate for children and marriage.
"I look at all reality shows as . . . half-truths," she said. "Let's face it: They will play up characters . . . to get big ratings, because that's all they care about. They don't care that it might ruin somebody's life."
That is what made host Jeff Probst's insistence last week that Survivor was presenting "a social experiment like never before" ring so hollow for me. Can a show really be considered an "experiment" when producers have so much control over the outcome?
Gentry remembered when her Survivor: Thailand teammate Ghandia Johnson tried to align with Ted Rogers to become the first black couple in the reality TV competition's top two spots. But Rogers resisted, Johnson accused him of groping her and the tribe eventually voted her off the show.
The lesson for Gentry: Teamwork matters most.
I expect this race-segregated edition of Survivor to back that viewpoint, unfolding as Burnett's own soliloquy on the ultimate irrelevance of race and culture difference when survival is at stake.
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.