Thursday, August 24, 2006

Race and Reality

Race in reality television is nothing new. In fact reality television did wonders for integrating people on television since it was almost color-blind. Almost every reality television show had a minority on it. Many reality TV shows actually had a nice cross section of people you actually find in reality. In fact a study from University of Texas says reality shows contained more characters of color than any other genre of primetime programming. Adding it’s the only place in primetime where you can regularly watch an integrated “cast.” Not only has reality television featured a racial cast minorities often win the reality show competition. Vecepia Towery on Survivor: Marquesas, Jun Song on Big Brother 4, Ruben Studdard onAmerican Idol, Harlemm Lee on Fame, and Dat Phan on Last Comic Standing are some recent examples. So with all the good reality TV has done to integrate the races leave it to the Tiffany Network to segregate them again.

CBS announced this week for the 13th edition of the hit reality TV show Survivor: Cook Islands contestants will be grouped by race, with the 20 competitors divided into four tribes consisting of whites, blacks and Hispanics. Critics are already saying its just a gimmick to exploit racial tensions – but CBS execs say no… that it is just good television. The shows long time host Jeff Probst, is praising the decision. Calling the exercise in segregation a “valuable social experiment,” rather than a stunt to dig up some controversy--and raise ratings. Probst went on to say that this is the most diverse cast on survivor. Saying previous seasons the Survivor contestants have generally skewed white.

So CBS puts together the most diverse set of contestants ever only to split them up by race. "It's not just 18 white people," Probst said. "Suddenly you have new slang, new rituals--people doing things like making fire in ways that haven't been done on Survivor. I think we have a season where people will say you can never go back to what you were before." He added that similar to all of the previous Survivors the tribes would eventually become united.

Syracuse’s own Bob Thompson, pop culture Dali Lama is less then enthused when he was asked about the new spin on the reality TV show. "If I had been a producer of this show, it is not an idea I would have come up with or given approval to," Thompson, told E! Online. "It's like a return back to segregated leagues in sports. The unseemly interest this will invite certainly is not worth the dramatic elements it's going to bring."

However this isn’t really the first time a reality TV show has split things up – though it is the most controversial. It may be less offensive than race but reality show have divided up contestants by gender (Survivor and The Apprentice) and also education i.e. class (High School vs., College on The Apprentice). I am just afraid this could be a slippery slope. What’s next? The Donald splitting up the next seasons contestants by religion? Are the greedy Jews really more business savvy than the other faiths? Or by stereotype? Can the Irish out drink other races? Mexicans out mow during a landscaping competition, Arab leave the opposition in the sand in camel races, or blacks out sell during a street pharmacy event.

I guess it’s not the first time race has been used for ratings. Minorities have also found themselves at the butt of many jokes. Two of the biggest and most glaring examples include William Hung the ‘Asian geek' whose singing and dance moves were exactly what we would expect them to be, or the derogatory character type of ‘the black bitch' embodied and edited to be presented so well in The Apprentice’s Omarosa.

Despite all of the networks protests I can’t help thinking this is a gimmick. The shows new plot was on all of the morning shows on this week often bereft with criticism. However the old Hollywood adage is that any publicity is good publicity. This controversial twist could just be the thing the lagging series needs. Season 12 of Survivor was the lowest rated season ever.

So to Survive Survivor is pushing the envelope of race. Will there social experiment be a display of racism teams resorting to racial epithets to make the show edgy. I guess only time will tell, and if the shows go down in flames then maybe Survivor won’t be able to survive its own experiment.


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