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 V.15 No.37 | September 14 - 20, 2006 

Idiot Box

The Racial Divide

“Survivor: Cook Islands” on CBS

It wasn’t long after producers of “Survivor” announced plans for their 13th season that naysayers started organizing protest rallies and calling for network boycotts. What had reality show guru Mark Burnett done to so inflame the viewing public? As you probably know by now, he said he would separate this year’s contestants by race.

In “Survivor: Cook Islands,” the 20 initial contestants will be divided into four separate “tribes”--one for African-Americans, one for Hispanics, one for Asians and one for Caucasian folk. Racial division in 21st-century America? (Well, in 21st-century Polynesia, at any rate.) How can we allow this? Didn’t the Supreme Court strike down the constitutionality of “separate but equal” reality television shows in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education?

Let’s get one thing clear: Dividing the contestants along racial lines is nothing more than a gimmick designed to get attention. And it has. Traditional wisdom says there’s no such thing as bad publicity. In some sense, that’s true. Ratings for the Sept. 14 debut of “Survivor” are guaranteed to be huge. Still, the network has suffered some tough setbacks thanks to the controversy.

New York City Councilman John Liu called CBS’ plan “preposterous” and has been feverishly urging the network not to broadcast the show. New York Post TV columnist Linda Stasi remarked, “The whole concept is racist. Of course, it’s ugly as can be.” Worst of all, CBS has seen a mass exodus (that’s not meant to be a racial comment about Jews, by the way) of sponsors. So far, GM, Home Depot, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup have all pulled commercial spots. GM, which has sponsored the show since its 2000 debut, quietly deflected controversy, saying the company was simply “shifting media dollars to more live sports.” Still, it’s clear some people are trying to steer clear of “Survivor.”

Burnett spent the last few weeks defending his decision, claiming the show’s premise is a positive one. In an interview with the New York Times, he acknowledged that he was reacting at least in part to criticism that the show lacked ethnic diversity. “We’re always hearing about how we only have two token blacks on the show,” he told the newspaper. Hence, divided or not, the show will be more diverse.

At worst, it seems like “Survivor” will generate some talk about racism in America. Though the PC Police would prefer to think otherwise, acknowledging that there are different races on planet Earth doesn’t actually constitute racism. Earlier this month, Rush Limbaugh was speculating that the African-Americans on the show would certainly lose because, as everyone knows, “blacks can’t swim.” Now, that’s racism.

Of course, by midseason, the tribes will be united in some big celebration of multiculturalism anyway, and America will have moved on to bigger and better dustups. In the meantime, critics can at least console themselves in the fact that CBS didn’t try this on “The Amazing Race.”

“Survivor: Cook Islands” premieres Thursday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. on KRQE-13.


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