Thursday, August 24, 2006
From The New York Times…
‘Survivor’ to Divide Teams Along Racial Lines
By BILL CARTER
For the first time since it went on the air in 2000, the hit CBS reality television program “Survivor” will divide its teams — or tribes, as they are known on the show — along racial lines.
For the first half of the series this fall, four teams of five members will be made up of blacks, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and whites. They will compete in weekly challenges against each other, and the losing group will have to vote out a member of its own team.
Mark Burnett, the series producer, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the decision to organize the teams by race was made in group discussions with CBS executives and was in no way intended to promote racial divisiveness.
“In America today,” Mr. Burnett said, “I really don’t believe there are many people who hate each other because of their race. But even though people may work together, they do tend in their private lives to divide along social and ethnic lines.”
Mr. Burnett noted that in many cities, members of ethnic groups tended to cluster in neighborhoods. “In New York you will find areas like Little Afghanistan,” he said. “Maybe in the year 3010, when we’re all coffee-colored, it really will make no difference. But right now, it is what it is.”
Mr. Burnett said that “Survivor” and other shows had often been criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity. “We’re always hearing about how we only have two token blacks on the show,” he said. And the predominance of whites has been reflected in the show’s applicants, with more than 80 percent of them white, he said.
For the new contest, Mr. Burnett said, the show reached out to social and church groups to bring in more applicants of different backgrounds. He said the results had been gratifying. “We got so many good people we expanded the number of contestants to 20 instead of the usual 16,” he said.
Both CBS and Mr. Burnett acknowledged that the new format could be criticized. “I know it’s going to be controversial,” he said. “I’m not an idiot.”
In a statement, CBS said it “fully recognizes the controversial nature” of the format change. But it expressed confidence in the program’s ability to handle the situation sensitively.
The change leaves CBS open to charges that it was done to increase the ratings for “Survivor,” which, while still a hit, has had a diminished audience in recent years. In addition, in the new television season, CBS is facing a serious new challenge on Thursdays, the “Survivor” broadcast night. ABC has moved its strongest drama, “Grey’s Anatomy,” to Thursday nights at 9 to oppose CBS’s top show, “CSI.” ABC has also placed its most promising new series, “Ugly Betty,” on Thursday at 8 to compete with “Survivor.”
But Mr. Burnett said he was not making the change as a ratings strategy. “We have hardly been hurting in the ratings,” he said, noting that “Survivor” still attracted about 17 million viewers a week last season.
Instead, he called the move “an interesting social experiment.”
“I don’t think it would be valid in the regular modern world,” Mr. Burnett said. “But this is suddenly a very different playing field. People here are playing for a million dollars. They’re going to want to know if you’re going to vote them out. Or if they’re hungry, they’ll want to know if you know how to catch a fish. They’re not going to care if you’re green or Martian.”