It’s a harsh world out there in the ratings competition game, especially for reality shows, which seem to take a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. So it was no surprise when the producers of CBS’ Survivor pulled a rabbit out of their hat this season in a risky gamble to win ratings. What was surprising, however, was they put their finger firmly on the hot button issue no one dare touch anymore, at least not for entertainment value: race.
Yes, for some reason they thought it would be a good idea to divide the castaways into teams of race – Latino, Asian, Black and White. They are segregated only in the beginning but eventually merge. Wait a minute, haven’t we worked for decades just to put across the idea that there isn’t anything different about us?
On Survivor, the idea is to generate either controversy early and often or giant fake breasts early and often. Both are ratings grabbers. Throw in racial tensions and you have the possibility for controversy and, from the looks of the contestants, big fake breasts. Probably not that much is going to change. Unless you count the public upset.
Many groups are outraged that something so serious could be used so casually as a ratings grabber. New York City councilman John Liu is the angriest, stating, “The idea of having a battle of the races is preposterous. How could anybody be so desperate for ratings?’’
Who’s he kidding? Does he have any idea how cutthroat these people are? For a number one show what wouldn’t the producers do? Any kind of controversy is welcomed if it means audiences will watch in droves. What the “Survivors” know is that their audience is mostly mainstream white America. So far, only the minorities have protested loudly, although no doubt more than a few white Americans are upset by the (rather lame) idea.
So let’s go there, shall we? No one can imagine what the Survivor editors will do with the first episode, set to air September 14, but something tells me they’ll tailor the show to not make an already tense situation even worse. Something also tells me that they’re glad anyone noticed what they were planning on doing because that means people are talking about a show that no one talks about anymore. No publicity is bad publicity.
CBS has released a statement: “CBS fully recognizes the controversial nature of this format but has full confidence in the producers and their ability to produce the program in a responsible manner. Survivor is a program that is no stranger to controversy and has always answered its critics on the screen.”
Most of television now is about inclusion, not exclusion. Survivor has long been criticized for not having enough minorities on its show – now that it has minorities it had to find a way to fit them in and not lose its mostly white audience – hey, segregation! It’s always worked in the past when integrating minorities into the white world, so why not on high stakes network television?
It would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that the latest and most serious issue dealing with race and television were the images from Hurricane Katrina, where most of the country got to see a side of poverty, tied in with the black community.
Does merely dividing people into racial groups mean you’re racist? Does putting two people together who have dark skin mean anything beyond something purely visual? Of course it does. Either the show will debunk stereotypes or it will reinforce them. Somehow, though, all of this happening on a dumb network reality show seems all wrong.
For his part, Councilman Liu also needs to put things in perspective. When he said, “This show has the potential to set back our nation’s race relations by 50 years.” The show can’t even beat The Amazing Race at the Emmys; how can it possibly do anything else? Annoying and shallow, yes. History-making? No.