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'Survivor' Host's Geoethnic Studies, From Soup to Mutts

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, September 8, 2006

Until "Survivor" host Jeff Probst sat in on casting sessions for the CBS reality series's new edition, in which competitors were picked and put into "tribes" based on their ethnic background, he had not realized that "Asian" includes Japanese, Koreans and Chinese and that they do not necessarily like each other as a matter of ethnic solidarity.

Whites, on the other hand, are "mutts" and "don't have any ethnicity to hang on to," he told reporters on a phone conference call Wednesday.

"When you start talking to a person from Asia, you realize -- Wow! They have all different backgrounds!" gushed Probst, who described himself repeatedly as a 44-year-old white guy from Wichita.

Thrilled with the outrage generated by Probst's appearance two weeks ago on CBS's "The Early Show" to announce "Survivor: Race Wars," the network served him up again, this time for his traditional one-week-to-debut conference call with the Reporters Who Cover Television.

Grievously, Probst couldn't answer their really big questions, such as "why has this show, which has been so white for so long, suddenly had an attack of acute social consciousness?" and "why have all the sponsors and several advertisers on the show pulled out this edition?" except to say, "I don't run a network."

So we'll just be left speculating that what with the show losing about a quarter of its largely white audience in two seasons, someone higher up the food chain than Probst decided that maybe they should try a little ethnic diversity and see if they couldn't snag a few more of those Hispanic, Asian and African American viewers.

Probst did tell reporters that about 85 percent of the show's prospective contestants are white, which he called a "self-fulfilling prophecy" because most of the viewers are white.

Last season, "Survivor: Panama -- Exile Island" ranked No. 8 among white viewers, but 58th among African American viewers. Among Hispanic viewers "Survivor: Guatemala" was last season's most popular edition but ranked 64th. Stats on Asian American viewing were not available.

Meanwhile, Fox's reality hit "American Idol," with its ethnically diverse competitors, ranked No. 1 among whites, African Americans and Hispanics.

Probst could say, however, that working on this edition of "Survivor" has changed his life.

The other day, he told the reporters, he went to his dentist, who is white, and the dentist brought in another dentist, who is Asian. "And I found myself saying to the Asian doctor, 'Where in Asia is your family from?' " The dentist said he was Korean. "The only reason I had the courage to even ask that question or the knowledge to ask that question was I'd just spent 39 days with people from Korea," Probst said.

Yes, he really did.

Asians, he explained, include Chinese and Japanese and Koreans and "they don't necessarily get along," adding, "This is stuff maybe I should know."

Having gone ethnic, "Survivor" will never again be lily white, Probst promised. That Probst is so sweet. And trusting. So naive.

"For me, as a white guy from Wichita who hosts the show I love . . . the minute everything was a go, I felt in my heart we'll never go backwards. We can't. . . .

"It wouldn't surprise me if a few years from now people looked back and said, 'Remember when "Survivor" did that and all the hoopla and now it's more commonplace?' That wouldn't surprise me at all. It would make me real happy."

He sees the stunt casting as nothing but good.

"This is such a positive idea because you're going to see more ethnicities represented, certainly on our show from this point forward. . . . You know, a young Hispanic kid now gets turned on to 'Survivor' because there's somebody he can relate to and it opens up a world to him. Maybe he decides to travel as a result of seeing the show or maybe he sees something . . . in this Hispanic [contestant] that he can connect with and he decides to go do what that guy does.

"The possibilities of what could happen from this, to me, are endless, really."

* * *

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tapped syndicated talk show host Ellen DeGeneres to host the next Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 25.

That popping noise you hear is the sound of film industry snobs jumping through windows.

"Ellen DeGeneres was born to host the Academy Awards," said show producer Laura Ziskin -- which is surprising given that DeGeneres has never been to the Oscars, according to the academy's own news release. Maybe that's because her film credits include playing Prologue Dog on '98's "Dr. Dolittle" and the voice of Dory in '03's "Finding Nemo," a starring role in the '96 film "Mr. Wrong" and the role of herself in '04's "My Short Film," according to the Internet Movie Database.

She has, however, done a brilliant job hosting the Primetime Emmy Awards twice, getting great notices in particular for her sensitive handling of the hosting duties just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She's also twice hosted the Grammys.

DeGeneres follows Jon Stewart -- who can forget him in "Death to Smoochy"? He didn't do so well as host this past Oscar night.

Stewart, in turn, followed Chris Rock -- brilliant in "Pootie Tang." Rock stank as Oscar host. So now it's DeGeneres's turn to host.

* * *

Meredith Vieira, who will replace Katie Couric as anchor of NBC News's "Today" show next week, says too much was made of CBS's altering of a photo to make Couric look about 25 pounds thinner in the days leading up to her "CBS Evening News" debut.

All photos are doctored, Vieira told reporters during a news conference yesterday in New York, including the one of her that's out there. "It's been touched up," she prattled on merrily as we died a million deaths because we weren't there in person to see the looks on the faces of various Very Important NBC News Suits who were also at the event.

She insisted the brouhaha over the Katie snap would not have happened if it had been a man's photo. She was, of course, wrong -- you can just imagine the kerfuffle if, say, Anderson Cooper went to, oh, I don't know, CBS's "The Early Show," and the network sent out a photo of him with blond or brown hair. Or maybe taller.

But that didn't stop Vieira from getting all exercised about the Couric photo, saying that just when you thought women were doing a lot better in the TV news industry whammo! something like this knocks the wind out of you.

Or, she added, "maybe as a woman I have a chip on my shoulder." Which was honest -- and, we think, accurate.

Even so, she had the reporters eating out of her hand within minutes. Maybe because she's the kind of person who when asked what her beverage of choice is now that she has to get up so early in the morning, answered without missing a beat, "Gin, but I don't do that anymore."

Asked why people like her so much, Vieira speculated, "I take what I do seriously but I don't take myself seriously and at the end of the day I go home to people [her husband and teenage children] who put me in my place every day."

"I'm very fortunate to have a life and I value it tremendously," she said.

Vieira was naturally asked how she thought Rosie O'Donnell -- her replacement on ABC's "The View" -- and Couric -- whom she is replacing on "Today" -- did in their debuts this week.

Vieira said she's missed Rosie's first at-bats but "heard she did a great job and I know the ratings were terrific."

Katie, she said, "did a great job."

Vieira's new partner, Matt Lauer, who was also at the news conference, said he thought Couric had done a "good job" and "showed she's a great journalist."

"Remember, you don't judge anybody by their first day," Vieira chimed in.

"Good luck on that," one reporter was heard to mutter.

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