Critics push for Eye to alter 'Survivor' setup

Debate continues to simmer over CBS’ upcoming season of “Survivor,” even as critics acknowledge they are playing into a possible ploy for pre-show buzz.

For the fifth day Sunday, critics hammered away at the upcoming season in which blacks, Asians, Latinos and whites are grouped on teams according to their ethnicity.

Show’s critics continue to call for CBS to pull the show, with some New York politicians organizing a demonstration Friday at City Hall. On Tuesday, the Hispanic Federation will hold a rally in front of CBS headquarters to protest the show’s concept and even demand its cancellation.

“We know CBS poured millions into this season,” New York City councilman John Liu told Daily Variety. “But is there really nothing else the network can show?”

Gotham politicians have helped lead the charge, notably the voluble Queens councilman Liu, who pointed out that a recent ratings slip for “Survivor” makes the timing of the idea suspicious.

While he and others say they know they could be playing into the net’s gambit for publicity, they say they still must protest to stop the show from going forward.

If it is a ploy for ratings, CBS is executing it gently. Eye has declined to play it up on the front page of the show’s Web site, where it offers just this boilerplate teaser: “Stranded on the Cook Islands in the heart of the South Pacific, 20 strangers must live together and compete for the million-dollar prize.”

Since the concept for the new season, which debuts Sept. 14, was announced on Wednesday, “Survivor” has faced a barrage of criticism that has gone beyond the entertainment press into legislative chambers and news pages.

Even mundane events, such as the usual pre-debut media briefing with host Jeff Probst, scheduled this year for Sept. 7, are now likely to become a hotbed for questions about TV ethics.

And despite the push for CBS to scrap the season, there’s been little traction for a widespread boycott, and no commercial sponsor — General Motors is a main one — has yanked its support.

CBS has defended its choice by saying that it “recognizes the controversial nature of this format” but that the show historically has a tendency to reveal “interesting and distinct social dynamics.”

It also said that the season’s concept had a beneficial purpose. “As part of series evolution, the producers have regularly introduced new creative elements and casting structures that reflect some social issues in our culture. The ethnic format Mark Burnett and his team proposed and implemented for the beginning of this edition is an extension of that process.”

Defenders also note that reality TV in general is known for tackling, and shedding light on, socially charged topics, and has done so repeatedly in so-called battles between the sexes.

But critics fire back that separating groups along ethnic lines, even in the name of competition, is insensitive and should be off limits.

“The idea of racial segregation is wholly unacceptable,” Liu said, noting that “The Apprentice” scrapped a similar idea after hearing public protest. “We wouldn’t accept that anywhere else in society, and we shouldn’t accept it here.”

CBS supporters say that critics are unfairly attacking the show even as several aspects remain unclear: how many episodes feature segregation (teams often shift later in the season) and how much race is meaningfully debated on the show.

But the network declined to illuminate these questions, suggesting to some critics that the message was more insulting than edifying.

News continues a history of controversy for reality television. In many ways, the events of last week are a throwback to the early days of the form, when specials such as “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” were cultural flashpoints.

“Survivor” proved to be a refreshing breeze of legitimacy when it premiered in the summer of 2000, turning the form from gimmick into respectable, often socially insightful, drama.

No matter how it plays out, the effects could be consequential, perhaps obscuring the legacy of reality TV, which typically has been more progressive about diversifying its cast than other types of shows.

CBS has showed eagerness to put controversy behind them, refusing to comment beyond its statement and asking viewers to wait to see the show before passing judgment.

But some cautioned that the news cycle was early, and that only the first episodes would indicate whether the controversy was a tempest in a teapot or an embarrassment from which the net would have to backtrack.

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