Sagging 'Survivor' Plays the Race Card

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Contestants on
Contestants on "Survivor: Cook Islands" will be divided into "tribes" according to ethnicity, CBS announced yesterday on "The Early Show."(Monty Brinton - CBS)
When the stunning news broke early yesterday that CBS would divide contestants on the next "Survivor" into four tribes based on race, we anxiously watched the traditional unveiling of the contestants on the network's "Early Show" because we had money riding on how fast "Survivor" host Jeff Probst would work the phrase "social experiment" into the interview.

"Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett has been able to keep the reality series afloat for six years with stunts like pitting an all-male team against an all-female team. But a ratings plunge like the one the show suffered this past spring in its 12th edition -- fumbling nearly one-quarter of its audience compared with just two springs back -- called for something far more incendiary. Something that would whip the press into a frenzy amounting to millions of dollars worth of free publicity. Something "The Real Beverly Hillbillies" big -- something "Amish in the City" big.

So yesterday, on CBS's morning infotainment program, the network announced that for "Survivor: Cook Islands," which debuts next month, 20 contestants would be divided into the White Tribe, the African American Tribe, the Asian American Tribe and the Hispanic Tribe.

We'll pause here to give you time to re-hinge your jaw.

"The Early Show" was the perfect venue for a discussion about the "Survivor" cast's racial divide -- on-air talent for the CBS News program having been carefully selected nearly four years ago when "Early Show" was relaunched to include White Guy Father Figure Harry Smith, African American Chick Rene Syler, Asian American Chick Julie Chen and White Chick Hannah Storm.

About 15 minutes before the interview, "The Early Show's" ethnically diverse On-Air Gang took it outside the studio to see what the Common Folk thought of the shocking development:

"Now I'm just going to take this out into the crowd for a second because, the big twist . . . they're going to divide the tribes into race this time," Smith told the ethnically diverse gathering of Common Folk. Smith sought out one member of the Common Folk to speak for the crowd. He zoomed in on -- a white guy.

"What's your reaction to that?" Smith asked White Guy.

"Should be pretty interesting," White Guy responded.

"That's a safe answer," Chen said off camera.

"I'll tell you what -- that's a very safe answer and it's not a safe bet that this isn't going to cause a lot of buzz today, because this is the first that this word is out!" Smith shot back.

"I'm glad you asked him and not us ," said Syler, who was standing to the side with Chen. "Because we want to keep our jobs -- we would like to keep our jobs!"

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