Sept. 14 marks the season premiere of CBS’ Survivor: Cook Islands, a fitting title to introduce a season whose primary concept, as it opens its 13th installment, involves a radical melting pot approach to its 20-member pursuit of $1 million. The show plans to pit four groups of five each, encompassing a group of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians and seeing how they simmer.
It is certainly the most daring premise in the show’s history, but will it dissolve into a failed experiment, merely perpetuating the cultural divide already present in many circles of civilian society and network television alike, or will it be a harbinger for greater things for minorities in television?
Granted, something had to give. After 12 sessions of endurance tests, exotic locales and fried bugs, the series was in desperate need of a shot in the arm. Especially since last year’s Survivor: Panama-Exile Island averaged 16.8 million viewers, which was the series’ lowest-rated season ever.
So when executive producer of the series, Mark Burnett, proposed the controversial premise to this show, fellow developers were initially nervous but intrigued by the possibilities and decided to green-light the idea. There was one problem though. Since the number of minority applicants to the show was so miniscule, producers looked way out of the box to recruit Asians, African Americans and Hispanics, looking in places near (MySpace.com) and far sporting events. It was a risky venture as one wonders if anyone they spoke with was personally offended by their tactics (and when recruiting Hispanics, were they looking for specific groups such as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Columbians or just any Hispanic will do?)
The producers though, for now, don’t mind laughing off questions such as these as they’ve ascribed to the theory that no publicity is intrinsically bad.
“I’ve always been asked, ‘Why aren’t there more black people on [Survivor]?'” said the show’s host Jeff Probst to the Associated Press. “‘Where are the Asians?’ So the idea was to take on something we are criticized for. We decided: Let’s have the most ethnically diverse cast in the history of reality TV.”
No doubt about it, this will either be a tremendous error in judgment or the beginning of a much-needed image make-over for minorities in reality TV, which up to this point, has been very unkind.
From William Hung’s tone-deaf ineptitude on American Idol perpetuating the nerdy-Asian cliche, to Amerosa’s Crazy Black Woman stereotype on The Apprentice, minorities definitely have had an image problem in reality television. Perhaps showing a variety of races on an equal playing field with different backgrounds and experiences will open the minds of viewers-and simultaneously the flood gates-allowing races to lose themselves in the experience, learn more about different racial groups and inspire other shows to embrace diversity as well.
On the other hand, the possible risks are endless. What if it dissolves into an Us vs. Them Darwinian experiment, leading to not only a segregation of the teams but of the fans as well?
People could see the show as more of a racial superiority contest, and if one group suffers heavy losses in their tribe early, it will be hard to resist the temptation not to see it as a commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of each race. What if there’s a backlash because of its pseudo-affirmative action recruiting tactics, causing criticism from fans who feel casts should be chosen based on “merit?” What happens when the tribes, shall we say, “integrate” and merge as their tribe numbers dwindle and how much emphasis on race will be made by both the teams and viewers alike? Certainly, if one watches the show for the expressed purpose of rooting for their race against another, it will be an experiment gone awry.
Says Probst: “I think we have a season where people will say you can never go back to what you were before.” If this is true, it begs the question: Will we as a collective like where we will be, or wish for better times?