NYC No Fan of "Survivor: Segregation Island"

Officials, civil rights groups call for CBS to pull Survivor: Cook Islands in wake of controversy over dividing competitors by race; network defends gimmick

By Gina Serpe Aug 25, 2006 3:35 PMTags

Who would've thought reinstituting segregation would cause such controversy? Oh, right. Everyone but the producers of Survivor.

A group of New York City officials and civil rights groups have blasted CBS' announcement that it has split the contestants on Survivor: Cook Islands into tribes by race, claiming the producers' decision to pit blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics against one another during the early rounds of the show would only promote divisiveness among competitors and viewers alike.

"This idea is so ill conceived that it would be funny--but for the fact that racism does still sometimes rear its ugly head," city councilman John Liu said at a press conference Friday. "This show has the potential to set back our nation's race relations by 50 years.

"Nowhere else do we tolerate racial segregation, and we certainly won't stand for it in this battle-of-the-races scheme to prop up sagging television ratings."

Liu claimed the show's divisive premise would do nothing but promote the spread of negative stereotypes based on the actions of the different tribes--something that, just two days after the announcement, is already an issue.

Right-wing mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh, always keen to harangue on delicate subjects, took to handicapping the new season on his radio show Wednesday.

Hispanics, he said, "have shown a remarkable ability to cross borders" and "will do things other people won't do." Asians, per Limbaugh, are "the best at espionage, keeping secrets." Blacks "lack buoyancy" and are "more likely to drown," while the white man's burden will weigh down the last team with "guilt over the fact that they run things."

So much for breaking stereotypes.

Liu, an Asian American, is hoping to head off any more grandiose and ill-informed statements at the pass, launching a campaign for CBS to pull the season, or at least the season's concept, from the air. (The latter is a nonstarter, since the show has already been shot.) He's teaming up with the council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus to urge the network to rethink the questionable gimmick, beginning with a rally at New York's City Hall earlier today.

"This is not the type of premise that promotes unity," council member Robert Jackson said at the Friday press conference. "This show does not foster an environment that is conducive to diversity."

Caucus cochair Maria del Carmen Arroyo agreed, saying that Survivor's producers didn't realize the impact of their programming decision.

"CBS has demonstrated a great lapse in judgment. As a society, we need to hold corporations responsible for their actions," councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito said.

The caucus has already earned the support of like-minded advocacy groups. The leader of Hispanics Across America told Reuters the new season of Survivor was "not reality TV--it's racist TV."

"Moreover, the participants will be held to the daunting and unfair challenge of representing an entire race of people," HAA founder Fernando Mateo said, adding that the stunt was an "offensive and cheap trick."

"What will it mean for a team--a race--to fail in a battle of wits and strength against another race?"

For its part, CBS defended the decision to segregate the tribes based on ethnicity and denied claims it was an incendiary twist designed to grab headlines and ratings--both of which the show, having dropped to a franchise-low average of 16.8 million viewers last season, could use. The powers that be instead insist the stunt was the next logical step in a series that made its name on exploring social politics.

"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," the network said in a statement. "Survivor is a program that is no stranger to controversy and has always answered its critics on the screen."

Last season, for instance, the contestants were also initially split into four tribes--then consisting of the oldest men, the oldest women, the youngest men and the youngest women. The groups eventually merged into two mixed teams and finally a single tribe.

On Tuesday, when he first announced this season's segregation on CBS' Early Show, host Jeff Probst said that the contestants had "mixed reactions" about the division.

Probst also claimed that, controversial as the premise was turning out to be, the idea to divide its cast was well intentioned.

"The idea for this actually came from the criticism that Survivor was not ethnically diverse enough, because for whatever reason, we always have a low number of minority applicants for the show," Probst said.

Inadvertently or not, the producers of Survivor do appear to have contributed to the cause of racial unity. Thanks to the division, all ethnicities seem to have united--in their opposition to the show.

Survivor: Cook Islands kicks off Sept. 14.