Culture > Television

Racial profiling

Television | Survivor becomes a battle of the races in its 13th season

Issue: "Stealth care," Sept. 16, 2006

For Survivor's 13th season, the producers will make the pioneering reality show a battle of the races. What could possibly go wrong?

Prior to its Cook Islands season, set to debut on Sept. 14, Survivor had divided contestants along gender lines and even by age. Dividing contestants by race in a show that requires mastering both physical skills and interpersonal relations seemed like the next rational step. After all, critics have charged Survivor with creating an unfair environment where minorities can get squeezed out by a white-dominated field in competition for the $1 million grand prize.

But a New York City civil-rights group condemned CBS's plan to divide contestants into four single-race groups of five (white, black, Hispanic, and Asian) and called on the network to dump the show. Not that Survivor minds the criticism. CBS probably even welcomed the buzz. After finishing a dozen seasons, Survivor isn't the reality goliath it was when it debuted in 2000 and closed with a finale watched by more than 50 million viewers. Last season's finale in May drew 17 million viewers-good numbers for sure, but also 2.5 million lower than Survivor's previous low point in 2004.

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All of which helps explain why the reality show that defined a genre has been turning to gimmicks over the past few seasons. First, CBS fired off a battle-of-the-sexes season in 2003. Then producers made an all-star edition with some of the show's most popular previous contestants and followed up that twist with yet another gender-wars season, a season devoted to separating tribes into groups of older women, older men, younger women, and younger men.

Considering the lengths to which producers have gone to prevent further audience erosion, it's a wonder CBS didn't confront the racial taboo sooner.

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