New season will divide tribes along racial lines

If CBS was looking for a way to spark renewed interest in its six-year-old “Survivor” franchise, it’s found it.

The Eye announced Wednesday that the upcoming cycle of Mark Burnett’s reality warhorse will start off with tribes divided along racial lines. The initial group of 20 will consist of African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and white contestants.

Decision to tackle the always sensitive issue of race on the entertainment-based reality show was confirmed on Wednesday’s edition of CBS’ “The Early Show.” Rather than simply shill for the Eye skein, as ayem show hosts often do in such promo stunts, co-anchor Harry Smith was blunt in his interview with “Survivor” host-producer Jeff Probst.

“When I first heard this, I was stunned… and I was dismayed,” Smith said, later expressing his concern that viewers may end up cheering for contestants of their own race and that the whole idea is simply a stunt.

Probst held his ground, however.

“I think at first glance, when you just hear the idea, it could sound like a stunt, especially with the way reality has gone,” Probst said. “But that’s not what we’re doing here. The idea for this actually came from the criticism that ‘Survivor’ was not ethnically diverse enough, because, for whatever reason, we’ve always had a low number of minority applicants apply to the show. So we set out and said, ‘Let’s turn this criticism into creative for the show.’

“I think it fits in perfectly with what ‘Survivor’ does — it is a social experiment,” he added. “And this is adding another layer to that experiment.”

In an interview with Daily Variety, Burnett said the point of the race-based 13th edition of “Survivor” is to show that, when people are fighting for food and shelter (not to mention $1 million), racial differences aren’t so important.

“It’s about what happens when all I really care about is, ‘Can you catch any fish?’ and ‘Are you going to vote for me?’ ” he said. “The judgment basis is very different on ‘Survivor’ than it is in the modern world. It’s not like I’m taking people and putting them in New York or L.A. or their normal world.”

Brit-born Burnett, who’s now an American citizen, also said the show would reveal how race ultimately doesn’t have to be as much of an issue in daily life as it often is in the U.S.

“There’s no one race or sexual preference or other group who have an exclusive on being an asshole or being nice,” he said.

“Maybe that taboo (of race) could disappear through this,” Burnett added.

In order to find what’s likely the most racially diverse cast in reality show history, Burnett and his producers eschewed the usual application process and actively recruited potential contestants. “It was really hard,” Burnett said, adding he was pleased with the final result.

“We decided to have 20 players because we didn’t want to cut anyone,” he said.

While 13 of the 20 contestants hail from California, Burnett said the fact that most of the players didn’t apply for the show resulted in a more “real” cast than the usual assortment of fame-seeking celeb wannabes. Only one of the contestants is an actor, he said.

Last season, “Survivor” started out by dividing tribes by age, but within an episode, the tribes merged. Burnett wouldn’t say just how long this season will stay race-focused but said the time before the merge will be “longer” than last spring.

He also said the challenges on this season’s “Survivor” won’t be themed to test racial stereotypes.

Video shown by “The Early Show” revealed that some of the cast members were initially concerned by the producers’ decision to divide them by race but that others didn’t seem to care at all.

Vic Bulluck, head of the NAACP’s Hollywood bureau, said CBS contacted him late Tuesday about the “Survivor” twist. He said the org hopes to screen an episode soon and will wait until he sees the show before passing judgment.

“This could potentially be one of the major issues of the fall season,” he said. “Now we need to see how it’s executed.”

Bulluck said his first reaction to the gimmick was, “What were they thinking?” But he said he also understands that TV series frequently tackle provocative subjects.

“I definitely think we are potentially in for an interesting social experiment, not just by the show itself but also how the show is accepted by the American public,” he said. “I’m hoping it’s not what it would seem to be on face value.”

Guy Aoki, founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, also said he was “withholding judgment” until he watched the show.

“It could be interesting,” he said. “A lot of people put down reality shows. But if they’re done well, they can be very interesting sociological experiments. You see people’s first impressions of each other based on race. I’m not alarmed by it.”

Aoki said he was more concerned with how the show’s “battle of the races” format may be promoted.

“It depends on how they handle it; it could be kind of tacky,” he said.

Aoki, whose group monitors the portrayal of Asian-Americans in the media, said some watchdogs may be concerned that the show “would turn into that ‘Crash’ movie, in which everyone clashes with each other and hurls racial slurs.”

But, Aoki added, he didn’t think it would end up “as extreme as that.”

He noted that CBS’ “Big Brother” last season included an Iraqi contestant who might have been voted out first had prejudices won out. Instead, the contestant became the season’s most popular player among viewers — and was brought back for this summer’s “all-star” edition.

“This kind of stuff can be uplifting,” he said.

Reps for the National Hispanic Media Coalition, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium and National Latino Media Council were unavailable late Wednesday.

Decision to shake up “Survivor” by playing the race card comes as the show faces tough competish this fall from NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” and ABC’s buzz-generating dramedy “Ugly Betty.” Despite notable ratings declines over the past year, “Survivor” remains a top 10 hit among younger viewers.

CBS execs weren’t available for comment, but the net issued a statement expressing confidence in “Survivor’s” ability to tackle the race issue appropriately.

“Survivor” is “no stranger to controversy and has always answered its critics on the screen,” the Eye statement said.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more