New Season of 'Survivor' Divided by Race

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Entertainment Weekly's Dalton Ross discusses the next season of reality show Survivor, which will divide contestants into tribes based on race.

NEAL CONAN, host:

In the world of reality TV, almost anything goes. Think Amish in the City, Temptation Island, The Bachelor. Then yesterday, CBS revealed that the tribes on the next edition of Survivor will be divided by race.

Four tribes: Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic, and white will battle it out starting next month. The news of a segregated Survivor met with criticism and cries of what could possibly come next in reality TV.

Is this a sign of desperation for the show, a publicity stunt, or some sort of sign of the apocalypse? Join the conversation. Our number here is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org. Dalton Ross is a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly. He's with us from the studio at Argo Networks in New York. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. DALTON ROSS (Senior Editor, Entertainment Weekly): Thank you, Neal, always a pleasure to talk to the nation.

CONAN: Is this a publicity stunt or is there some kind of logic behind this move, or is publicity its own reward?

Mr. ROSS: I think that it's maybe a little bit of both. I think in their eyes there's some logic to it. Obviously, it's publicity. Survivor's entering its 13th season. It's been around for six years. Its ratings were down last season. When you have a show that's been on the air that long, you have to keep it fresh, find a way to keep it fresh.

Now as for the logic, I will say this for Survivor, and they'll say this about themselves, CBS will: it has always seen itself as a social experiment from the very first episode. They've done stunts - if you want to call them - before of dividing tribes up by sex, having an all-male tribe and all-female tribe. Last season they did it by age as well. They had older women, older men, younger women, younger men. So they've played in this sandbox before a little bit, but they've obviously never gone to this extreme.

CONAN: What's the buzz amongst entertainment types?

Mr. ROSS: Well, I'd say you know, shock - obviously a lot of people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSS: Because even if - you know, it's just - it's shocking that CBS would take a chance with it. It's a very risky move. I think it's shocking because it's a show that even with the ratings down is still a top-ten show, still anchors their Thursday-night lineup, which is the most important night of television for ad revenue.

So they're really taking a big chance here, and as far as reaction on the racial matters, I think that, you know - the problem is that they're playing with fire. I think - you know, I'm not saying this is going to be a disaster, because I really do think you have to take a wait-and-see approach. There have been instances where - with black - there was a show on FX earlier this year called Black. White. where they had white people - basically made them up to look black and had them live as African-American for a few days.

You first hear that you think blackface. You think that is a horrible, insensitive idea. It actually was pulled off pretty well, and I think everyone agreed that they did a good job with it. So I do think you have to wait and see a little bit, but it's very risky because who knows what's going to happen out there.

CONAN: Yeah, and particularly in the competition amongst the tribes, who's going to say what about whom?

Mr. ROSS: You know, that's it. And it's funny because, you know, I spoke with Jeff Probst, and he said every time he would come in to Entertainment Weekly -because he comes in before every season - we always say where are all the black people on the show, where are all the Asians. And he's always said, you know, we get a very small pool of minority applicants. But he said this whole decision came out of that criticism. They decided to turn that criticism around, so my response was well we told you to, you know, have more diversity. We didn't say to segregate them. But obviously that's the choice that they have made.

But the question now - it's funny because some Survivor fans are actually worried - have the opposite worry. They worry now because with divided by race, they're going to be so sensitive to this that maybe things that they've shown in the past they won't show now.

A few seasons ago, if a white contestant and an African-American contestant got into a heated argument, they'd show it. What do they do this season? Are they going to hold back on that? And some fans of the show are actually worried about that, that it will almost in an odd way end up being a kinder, gentler Survivor.

CONAN: We're talking about the next, segregated series of Survivor with Dalton Ross, senior editor at Entertainment Weekly. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now you also mentioned in the past that, you know, they've had difficulty -they say there's been a lack of diversity because they had a lack of minorities applying to be on the show, so where did they find these three teams?

Mr. ROSS: You know what they had to do is they actually - they went out and they heavily recruited, and they went on Web sites like MySpace. They actually found one person on realtor.com. She was a real estate agent, and they found her there. They went outside and, you know, they always - outside sporting events - this, that, everywhere. They really had to go out and find people, because it's not just about finding a number of people. It's still a show where you need contestants to fit what you're looking for: big personalities, this or that in the mix. So it wasn't like they could just take five - excuse me -Asian-Americans, five Hispanics, and five black people. They still wanted to find the right people, so they had to get a big applicant pool to look from.

CONAN: Yeah. You've got to get - well, it's the old platoon: the wise-cracker, the - well, you know the formula much better than I do, yeah.

Mr. ROSS: Yeah.

CONAN: Now as I understand it, you went on location out to the Cook Islands where this was filmed?

Mr. ROSS: It's very interesting. I did. I've been on location a few times, and I actually traveled there with the contestants before knowing the twist. And I looked around, I said wow, I'm seeing five African-Americans. There's usually only about one or two per season. Then I looked and I said, I see five Asian people. There have only been I think two or three Asian people ever on Survivor. So it sort of struck me that maybe they were going to do this, and I said something to someone, I think they're going to do it. And they said never in a million years would they ever do that. And a million years came quick.

So, you know, I was only there for the first few days of filming. It's hard to see, you know, what exactly the tone is going to be. Because the big question for me also is not even starting off segregating the tribes, what happens now when you - you know, they call it a merge, but it's really an integration -what happens when these tribes get together? Because that always happens on Survivor. They start separately but then they merge together, and that is going to be really key as far as how this season plays out, I think.

CONAN: So where do they go after this? I mean that's another question that I guess a lot of people are asking.

CONAN: Well, you know, that is a good question. It's always - and you said it at the top. You said, you know, reality TV always looking to go further and further. Has it gone too far now? Survivor has a tendency when they, you know, do a lot of twists, and obviously they've never done this - one this controversial - to then sort of pull back before. I don't think that they're necessarily going to feel we have to top ourselves, at least in the next season, and I think they also will have to - you know, the interesting thing about it is Cook Islands is already filmed. It's done.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. ROSS: As we spoke about, they're going to start filming the next one pretty soon as well. They'll start filming that in October, the end of October. So it'll be interesting to see if they take the pulse of the reaction once this starts airing - it first starts airing on September 14 - and then if that impacts what they're going to do next season.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Bill(ph). I think at first this idea seems offensive. However, on second thought, I think it's a pretty interesting idea. If this group of people were really stranded on an island, how would they group themselves in reality? Would they form tribes based on race? It would be interesting to see this play out. Kudos to CBS for having the guts to try this one out.

Mr. ROSS: You know, that's an interesting comment, because here's what Mark Burnett, the executive producer of the show, told me when I asked him about it. He said you know, I've noticed that people - all people, no matter what your background is - they tend to hang out predominately - not exclusively, but predominately - with their own ethnic group. And he's correct. And so, you know, why shy away from that? Let's see what happens. So he would obviously agree with that e-mail, that that is what they're trying to do here. They're trying to be honest and portray what they're doing.

It's also - when you first hear about these things, you know, you look at some of the shows like The Real World, which was sort of the first people to do this. And they would put people in a house together and you'd think it was horrible at first because maybe there was a white person from an area that hadn't been around a lot of African-Americans and they would say really offensive things. But then what you also might see is through that that person become educated and learn and grow as a result of that. So things can start off as a negative and then become a positive. I'm not saying that's going to happen here, but I'm just saying we have seen that on television before.

CONAN: And, of course, we next have Dancing with the Stars, including Tucker Carlson. So are we going to have the bow-tied group and the regular-tied group? Or you know - I don't know how they're going to...

Mr. ROSS: You know, I'm very disappointed because I actually saw a promo picture for that and there was no bow tie at all. And I said if you're going to get out there, he's got to have the bow tie. It's his go-to move. You know, it's his signature.

CONAN: Well, then he could wear a tuxedo and everything would be fine.

Mr. ROSS: That's right. That's absolutely right.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Dalton Ross, for being with us today.

Mr. ROSS: Absolutely. My pleasure.

CONAN: Dalton Ross is a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly. He joined us from the studio at Argo Networks in New York. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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