Six years ago, television producer Mark Burnett brought a remake of Swedish reality show Expedition: Robinson into our homes. Dubbed Survivor, the show's premise asked "What would happen if people had to survive against each other and the elements?" and pitted 16 ordinary Americans against each other in a quest for a cool million. Audiences sick of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? ate it up, watching with mouths agape as everyday people lied, cheated, stole and lounged around in bikinis. An astonishing 52 million watched the finale as the ugly naked guy won, and a pop culture phenomenon was born.
Unfortunately for Burnett, ratings for subsequent editions stagnated as new Survivor casts were filled with people who had adopted strategies by watching previous editions. The addictive fly-on-the-wall viewing experience offered by the first few installments quickly evaporated and producers resorted to gimmicks to keep the viewing experience fresh. A relatively simplistic game show was transformed by a menagerie of nonsensical twists convoluted enough to make a David Lynch film seem straightforward.
While previous installments have seen members swaping tribes, the return of previously eliminated contestants, an "all-star" edition, and tribes split by gender and age, the upcoming Survivor: Cook Islands takes it one step further. The 20 contestants will be split into four tribes based on their race: Aitutaki (Hispanic-Americans), Rarotonga (Caucasians), Manihiki (African-Americans) and Puka Puka (Asian-Americans). The reaction hasn't been pretty, and CBS seems frutstratingly oblivious as to why.
What CBS and the producers of Survivor are overlooking is that Survivor was popular because of what it represented. While Millionaire showcased the brainpower of "everyday Americans," success on the show tended to go to intellectuals and the shows became repetitive. Survivor, conversely, allowed a spotlight to be shone on common people, showcasing the ugly truths of the human spirit in all their glory and fast becoming a guilty pleasure for millions of viewers. The cunning, devious and clever contestants (like season one winner Richard Hatch) won, as long as they could hide those qualities. They may have been chauvinistic or borderline-racist, but never explicit.
The decision to split tribes by race perverts the guilty pleasure of watching the show because racism is suddenly staring us in the face. Viewers cheering for certain tribes over others could easily be accused of racial bias. While previous editions allowed viewers to simply cheer for their favourites without accusation of prejudice, water-cooler discussion of Cook Islands could lend itself to heated debate over why one person roots for the tribe of asian contestants over the tribe of caucasians.
This could be much ado about nothing, and if the producers need a new twist, the tribal divisions may merely last one or two weeks. It's just another 'shocking' ploy for ratings, regardless of any moral implications.
If audiences really wanted to send a message to the producers, they could simply not watch. Unfortunately, the controversy has drummed enough media attention that Cook Islands will undoubtedly be very successful. It's a shame, as it demonstrates that T.V producers need not concern themselves with such trivial issues as social responsibility: they just need to get ratings.