MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. The reality show Survivor is trying something new this season: segregation. When Survivor: Cook Islands debuts in September, its tribes will be divided by ethnicity - separate groups for whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. Survivor's host, Jeff Probst, explained this week on CBS's Early Show that they came up with this idea because the producers wanted more minorities in the cast.
Mr. JEFF PROBST (Host, Survivor): Our original idea was simply to have the most ethnically diverse group of people on TV. It wasn't until we got to casting and started noticing this theme of ethic pride that we started thinking, wow, if culture is still playing such a big part in these people's lives...
Mr. HARRY SMITH (Host, The Early Show): Right.
Mr. PROBST: ...that's our idea. Let's divide them based on ethnicity.
BRAND: Writer Jimi Izrael predicts viewers will be shocked, shocked when they see this new season of Survivor.
Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Columnist, Lexington Herald-Leader): No one thought that CBS would be brazen enough to pit the races against each other. But I guess race is the only taboo left. Or maybe this Survivor is the first in a new line of depraved scenarios for television. Watch out for celebrity catfights, in-law gladiators, or speed diapering. Now that Survivor has broken up tribes into ethnic categories, anything's possible.
Frankly, I don't know why anyone's surprised. Race and class have been the subtext of reality shows since the beginning. It's the formula. You put two bees in a jar with a wasp and a spider, shake vigorously, and then sit back and enjoy the action.
This new scenario looks a little too much like affirmative action in corporate America. But maybe that's part of the reason I'll be watching. You get the feeling these shows are cast from corporate break rooms and cafeterias, because everyone from the goofy mailroom clerk, the inappropriate pervert in accounting, the manager who wears her blouses a little too tight, to the smug young maverick on the corporate fast track, they're all here on the screen.
Survivor is pretty much a long office party, just with maggots instead of coffeecake. The same lies you tell, the same alliances you make, and the same plotting to advance your position that you get at any business is what you get on reality TV. You enter on the bottom, try to manipulate others to carry you on their coattails, protect them to protect your own interests, and then at the opportune time turn on them. Take them out and seize control of your own destiny.
And on reality shows, as in life, minorities have a tougher time gaming the system. We don't trust people or the games enough to make alliances and this makes us expendable. Why do you think blacks get voted off reality show so quickly? But black folks watch reality shows too, always rooting for our own to win against the odds. The black people on these shows always seem misunderstood, kind of like in real life.
Now on Survivor, everyone - blacks, Asians and Hispanics - will have someone to root for. And for sheltered white people it may even prove to be educational. Survivor: Cook Islands caters to them. Television has always provided a comfortable distance for white folks to observe people of color in their natural habitat, like the soon to be merged UPN or BET. Making a friend of another race, well, that takes too much effort.
We will all be watching, yet we all know there's something wrong about Survivor reducing contestants to race. But the producers aren't trying to create heady social commentary. This is old-fashioned race-baiting. And because it's nothing new, this clash of cultures will be provocative for about five minutes.
BRAND: Jimi Izrael is a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.