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Eric Deggans Headshot

Survivor Discovers the Value of Diversity When it Needs a Gimmick to Save Itself

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I couldn't believe how angry I was getting.

Survivor host Jeff Probst thought he was making a wonderful point: noting how much the decision to segregate contestant teams by race rejuvenated the aging reality TV series.

"It was literally the biggest casting endeavor we'd ever gone through in 13 seasons," he enthused during a conference call Thursday. "But we found the freshest cast in years. When you put on a show with a lot of people who are white, and only white people watch, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We started looking at these people and saying, 'Wow - we have fresh points of view again'. All of a sudden, the show, in our minds, rebirthed itself....It really did re-energize us."

Why did this piss me off so badly? Because this was exactly the argument critics like me had been making to Survivor creator Mark Burnett and his cohorts since the very first, white-dominated Survivor hit the air.

As I have written before, I remember asking Burnett why Survivor was so lacking in diversity during a press party held by CBS in Los Angeles about a year after the sho's debut. Back then, he jumped back like I had touched him with a hot poker, insisting that race was not a factor on the show and insisting that complaints about a lack of diversity was just foolish.

It's the kind of response I've come to expect from many network TV types during discussions about diversity. Many of them seem to view such discussions, especially when raised by a person of color, as a thinly-veiled excuse for a more selfish agenda. They see someone seeking fame, or professional status or a part for their cousin; what they don't see, is the validity of the argument.

So along comes Probst, six years after I made the initial observation that Survivor might benefit from being more diverse, finally admitting that Survivor has benefitted by being more diverse. So why did it take them 12 seasons to get around to it?

"I don't know why television is taking so long to be more representative....I only know that its finally coming time with Survivor and CBS," said Probst, describing himself as a "white guy from Wichita" who learned a lot about race issues in the new season -- while completely sidestepping the question. "I felt in my heart we would never go backwards. I think we all felt, wow we just reinvented our show."

Instead of feeling glad that some bigwigs in network TV finally got it, I was angry and frustrated that we seem to be having the same conversations -- and teaching the same lessons -- again and again, year after year.

So why do Burnett's shows seem to perpetuate such stereotypical images among its players of color -- from Sean Rector, a racially paranoid black man who couldn't swim, to Gervase Peterson, a black man with children by two different women he isn't married to, who also couldn't swim, and the Apprentice's Stacie J. -- the quintessential Crazy Black Woman?

"One problem with only having....If you have a season where you only have one black guy and everybody else is white...if that black guy doesn't perfom, or if that black guy can't swim, or if that black guy quits it's like a beacon screaming," said Probst. "If you looked across the board at all of the jackasses we've had on the show who are white - all the people who are white who make the same, ridiculous social mistakes...all the white people who are lazy, all of the white people who are bigots. It just so happenes, most of the people on the show have been white, so you can find someone to root for. So I think the observation you make is correct. I think the conclusion you came to is not correct."

Probst indirectly described a curious situation, where producers learned early on many of the show's signature sponsors would not be involved. For the first time, they had no products to wrap their challenges and rewards around, because advertisers such as General Motors, Procter and Gamble and Home Depot had decided to pass on the program, long before anyone at Survivor central had decided on the race angle.

But in trying to refute the notion that a flood of sponsors dropped the show because of its team segregation, Probst instead confirmed how much the show needed to generate buzz heading into planning its 13th season.

And in considering their biggest criticism, they found the biggest gimmick to promote the new season. ""It was the single biggest casting job we ever had," said Probst, noting that, for the first time, Survivor had to go out and ask people to be on their show. "Iit got to the point where we were literally calling the Miss Koreatown pageant in Seattle. That's how deep we dug (to find contestants of color)...Usually, if you say something during the casting sessions like 'I just think it would be fun to be on another episode of Survivor,' you're out the door. Because we know you'll quit on episode three."

It struck me during this call that race relations in America are too often like this; a dance of anger and denial set to the rhythms of an old married couple's habit. One side moves along blissfully, unaware of how badly its pissing off the other side, which mostly wants to gouge someone's eyes out in frustration.

Probst may never understand how frustrating it is to see him act like the value of diversity is such an amazing, unexpected revelation, when there are those of us who had been trying to convince him of its usefulness for years. And, as is so often the case in network TV, they really only wind up doing the right thing by accident -- backed into a corner by the show's failing fortunes.

Oh well. Sometimes, you have to take progress however you can get it.