Survival of the (Racially?) Fittest: CBS Gets Big Buzz

The CBS plan to launch this season's "Survivor" pitting four teams against each other divided along racial lines -- blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians -- is enraging city officials in New York, who are demanding the show, scheduled to premiere Sept. 14, be scrapped.

The network has issued a statement saying, "CBS fully recognizes the controversial nature of this format but has full confidence in the producers and their ability to produce the program in a responsible manner."

Critics are unsure what "a responsible manner" would be, even as CBS defends its plan.

But if CBS was looking for a storm of free publicity in the press, they've got it.

"What's Next? Germans vs. Jews?" the New York Post asked in a headline today.

"Racism does bring out the worst in us and, unfortunately, in that ['Survivor' producer Mark] Burnett is not entirely wrong," the Post says.

Indignation in the press is not always echoed by people in the street, as ABC News' questioning of random passersby in front of New York's Lincoln Center showed this morning:

"I wouldn't mind or be offended by the whole race division. I'd be more interested to see what the competition is like," said Mike, a African American assets administrator in his late 20s. "I mean, unless it's stereotyping any group in a way that's offensive, I'm okay with it."

"I think it's a good idea," said Ashley, a white woman in her mid 20s who designs wardrobes for TV shows. "It gives people extra incentive to watch the show, now, out of sheer intrigue. I wouldn't have watched it before, since it seemed kind of dull, but this adds new flavor."

The show's host, Jeff Probst, is quoted by The Associated Press as saying CBS is well aware that the show may be offensive and that "it's very risky because you're bringing up a topic that is a hot button. … There's a history of segregation you can't ignore. It is part of our history."

But the network's claims that it is trying to be creative, to "try something new," were only met by derision from New York City Councilman John Liu.

"The idea of having a battle of the races is preposterous. How could anybody be so desperate for ratings?" Liu told the AP.

Something in the Zeitgeist, or Just a Bad Idea?

CBS is apparently acting on a temptation that has presented itself to other networks lately.

Various reports depict all the networks having to make decisions about similar use of racial tension to add interest -- or hoped-for ratings.

For example, Donald Trump has been convinced by NBC officials that he should not pursue plans to pit black and white teams against each other in "The Apprentice," according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

ABC rejected the idea of a program that would have been called, "Welcome to the Neighborhood." That reality program was described as tagging along as conservative white families had to decide whether to live next to Korean, black or gay neighbors.

CBS, though, has shown no sign of pulling the increasingly controversial launch of its 13th season of "Survivor."

At the very least, the cynical old advertising adage, "There's no such thing as bad publicity," may be finding new confirmation.

The long-running "Survivor" suffered a drastic ratings plunge in its 12th season, losing nearly one in four of its previous viewers.

So it might not be surprising that Burnett, who in an earlier season pitted all-male vs. all-female teams, should try the group-division card again to chase ratings.

And the inevitable electric buzz about the new racially divided teams means "Survivor" is now in the news again, from the blogosphere to talk radio.

Blogger Eric Deggan, a staff writer of the St. Petersburg Times, now reports that colleagues at USA Today, CNN Headline News and CBS radio asked him, after his initial postings on the story, "to weigh in on the question of the moment: Is CBS now prepared to exploit racial strife for ratings gain?"

"This is hardly what the Kerner Commission had in mind when it urged TV executives back in 1968 to fully integrate black people 'into all aspects of televised programming,' " Deggan scoffs.

Controversy on Internet and radio is only heating up in response to reports such as one in the Chicago Tribune that "Survivor" producer Burnett says in a promotional video "that he thought the racial element of the show could bring out the best in the competitors."

Overall, the story has reached a second level of coverage in which some professional journalists are now beginning to criticize the media for playing into the hands of an apparent public relations ploy by the producer.

"Something that would whip the press into a frenzy amounting to millions of dollars worth of free publicity," is how the Washington Post puts it, in an article that, as is the nature of news media, only serves to add to that free publicity.

As does this article. Whatever else we will learn from this -- whether or not this survival-of-the-(racially?)-fittest "Survivor" sees air -- any publicity ploy aforethought there may have been seems to be working.