Two reality shows take two ethnicity paths
By R.D. Heldenfels
Two reality shows on CBS will try to make points about diversity. One has done it more noisily.
Survivor: Cook Islands arrives at 8 p.m. Thursday with a deliberately provocative notion: four tribes of five people each, divided along strict ethnic lines, in competition with each other.
For any competition, that would invite controversy. Survivor's past lack of diversity makes it seem even more cynical.
The Amazing Race, meanwhile, which has embraced diversity in different forms in its runs, begins its new season on Sept. 17 at 8:30 p.m. with one of its most diverse casts, executive producer Bertram van Munster said at a news conference this summer.
One of the most visible differences is the inclusion of two Cleveland friends, Bilal Abdul-Mani and Sa'eed Rudolph, whose Islamic faith extends to their wardrobe.
They will compete against 11 other pairs, including a father-daughter team in which the daughter is gay; a couple ofIndian-American descent; a gay male couple; and a team with a clinical prosthetist and a woman who has an artificial leg -- recent ESPY award winner Sarah Reinertsen. Also, cheerleaders and models.
The casting of an Islamic team even as America is marking the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 can be seen as a healing move. Van Munster has said they ``give a phenomenal image of who they are.'' It can also feel exploitative, although van Munster said the anniversary was not a factor in their selection.
Given Race's record on race, van Munster is believable. Survivor's plan is harder to digest, especially when shows like Amazing Race and Fox's American Idol have been more openly diverse than Survivor.
Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor, said the decision to deal more directly with race came out of regular preseason discussions. Looking for a new direction, the show's staff decided it needed to address the lack of diversity -- and possible stereotyping -- on the program.
Probst said that about 85 percent of the people applying to Survivor are white. If only for that reason, Probst said, the rare people of color on the show are like beacons when they do not do well.
At the same time, he said, there are plenty of ridiculous white people on the show, but ``you can find one or two (whites) to root for.''
In order to improve its diversity, the show expanded its casting search this time, seeking out people of color. (Somehow, one third of the 20 contestants still ended up being from Los Angeles, but that's another diversity issue.)
And as would-be contestants were interviewed, Probst said, ``we kept coming up with the same idea, ethnic pride.'' That led to dividing tribes along ethnic lines, which Probst had expected to be seen as a positive move.
But when it was announced, the show came under fire from critics and politicians. A number of sponsor pull-outs were announced, although Probst said the show lost some key sponsors months ago, before the theme was known.
Still, in a telephone news conference Thursday, Probst insisted that the resulting show will be thought of as one of the five best Survivor series ever, and that the change in cast and concept invigorated him and the show.
There are three different love connections, for example, a record number of blind-sides in Tribal Council -- and, in the second episode, a discussion within one tribe about stereotyping.
``The show, in our minds, rebirthed itself,'' he said, noting that many of the players had never seen Survivor -- unlike the thoroughly schooled competitors in some recent seasons. ``It really did energize us.''
And, he said, ``At the end of the day, you will see that we handled it responsibly.''
But we'll have to wait until the show airs to know for sure. Breaking with recent tradition, CBS is not making the first installment of Survivor: Cook Islands available for preview.
Still, Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan said, ``You can't have diversity just for the sake of diversity.... (Teams) ultimately have to be interesting.''
But how people are seen makes a difference in a competition.
``Everybody's going to face extra challenges based on how they look, what color skin they have, how they behave, whether they're unshaven,'' Keoghan said. ``The real world isn't fair.''