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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Between a Racy Show and Racial Segregation

This morning, CBS confirmed that the next Survivor show, Survivor: Cook Islands, airing Sept. 14, will be grouped by race, with competitors divided into four tribes consisting of whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics. CBS calls it “a valuable social experiment” and explains that “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 apply for the show." The network also stated that this was the logical next step in "a show that explores social politics." Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University was quoted today comparing this “social experiment” to "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." Sounds right to me. What good can possibly come out of segregated teams trying to win on national TV a survival of the fittest competition?

Posted by Orly Lobel on August 23, 2006 at 08:11 PM | Permalink


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CBS has confirmed that the next season of Survivor will feature racially segregated tribes (H/T: Orly Lobel). They're claiming that it will be a useful social experiment. I never watched Survivor (or any reality TV with the occasional exception of Th... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 23, 2006 10:26:05 PM


In the past, Survivor producers have had an amazingly offensive tendency to single out African-American male contestants for editing into the "lazy" role on the show. When I first heard the news about this segregation by race, the one good thing I thought could come out of it is that it seems unlikely that CBS will present all the men on the African-American team as lazy.

We'll see.

Posted by: anon | Aug 24, 2006 8:42:39 PM

I'm not sure I understand, Dave, given the nature of the competition at issue in Survivor. The points you make justify separate sports leagues based on gender or age, and that's what we still see in golf, tennis, etc. But, given the range of hard-to-define skills that defines the Survivor game, I think all of the gender/age segregation of previous episodes was designed to test various social conventions and expectations, rather than play to the innate strengths or weaknesses of different sorts of participants.

And, I am still struggling to see what the "disaster" will be here? Is it exposing and reminding eeryone about the reality of latent racial biases despite our (false) claims that racism is a concern of the past? In my view, the way everyone is reacting may say something quite disconcerting about the reality of race in modern society. (I suppose I have a Shakespearian reaction to all the negative reaction: "Thou doth protest too much.")

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 24, 2006 6:44:37 PM

It seems to me the clear difference from age/sex divisions (and the one that registers in our visceral negative reaction to the latest stunt) is that race generally does not correlate with any traits that are deemed to be necessary to win the competition. Age does correlate: the younger people are more physically fit, the older have more experience, wisdom, knowledge, interpersonal skills, etc. Sex also correlates: men and women have different physical attributes (strength for men, flexibility for women, for example) and often different mental attributes (more difficult to pin down, but acknowledged by everyone). The same is simply not true for race. Add to that the fact that in less enlightened eras, there were THOUGHT to be correlations between race and physical/mental attributes, and here you have a recipe for disaster.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 24, 2006 2:19:35 PM

Can someone explain why divisions by race in this context is perceived as very socially different and so much more "despicable" than the common technique of dividing teams by gender or age or education? Obviously, there is a much more pernicious social history surrounding racial divisions, but doesn't that reality in a sense support the CBS claim that this could be a "valuable social experiment"?

In my mind, the key social theory question is not "[w]hat good can possibly come out of segregated teams trying to win on national TV." Rather, it is "what should we take away from the greater visceral reaction to teams segregated by race than to teams segregated by gender or age or education?"

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 24, 2006 1:49:38 PM

I've never followed "Survivor," but this strikes me as completely despicable.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 24, 2006 10:26:49 AM

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