Will there be any ‘Survivors’?

TONY PIERCE is the editor of

WHO KNEW A stupid game show could launch a race war?

That’s what nervous pundits and politicians from coast to coast are saying about the decision by the reality hit “Survivor” to divide this fall season’s 20 contestants into four competing groups (or “tribes”) -- whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians.

“This could get ugly,” warned a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist. New York City Council members said they’d launch a boycott. One Arkansas paper ran the headline: “Race wars are coming to a TV near you.”

First, unless four white cops get caught on videotape billy-clubbing a black man, and then all get let off the hook, television has little or no power to inspire racial violence. Second, Americans don’t rise up for anything nowadays, or else people would be rioting over unleaded being $3 a gallon and the president continuing a war most of us oppose. And third, dividing “Survivor” into ethnic tribes is more likely to keep people off the streets and in their homes watching TV, where they ought to be.


“I can’t decide if the producers are completely naive and clueless or completely soulless,” Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.

Well, am I naive to think that, if everyone actually works well together, it might dispel many of the stereotypes that critics seem so sure will spring up? Do I too have no “soul” because I find it entertaining when some of the widespread ignorance surrounding different cultures (including my own) bubbles to the surface?

One reason for the outrage is that critics don’t actually know how “Survivor” works.

Each tribe doesn’t literally beat up their competitors -- they square off in puzzle-solving games or obstacle courses or tests of endurance, like standing on a beam for the longest amount of time. Unless one desperate dude on a pole drops the N-bomb to distract his opponent, it’s difficult to see how race would even come into the game until the second half of the season, when the tribes all merge into one. And even then, the way to win is not by hurling slurs but by getting along with your new tribe and otherwise laying low, as the troublemakers and superstars almost inevitably get voted off.

In “Survivor,” if there’s going to be any hate going on for the first half of the season, it will be self-hate, as the tribes get to learn all the little irritating things about one another rather than focus on the contestants they don’t see very often. It’s not the person with the different skin color, it’s the guy on your team who eats the last scoop of rice, or that other guy who doesn’t seem to ever work around the camp, or the alpha leader who runs around shouting orders.

This stage of the show is where you might see the Japanese American dig at the Korean American (helping people understand that not all “Asians” are the same), or the Mexican American diss the Cuban, who’d probably be put out at being called “Latino” anyway. (Though nine of the 20 contestants are from L.A., so the odds are more likely that they’ll all reminisce about which Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf they miss the most.)

What tribal “Survivor” has a real chance of showing us is how much race isn’t an issue when it comes to the bare necessities of living on an island for 39 days; how much race is an issue when talk show hosts want to artificially spice up their debates; and that teamwork, communication and trust are the foundation of great teams, not skin color.

The tribal switch is also interesting because it’s mass-marketing genius. With specialized narrowcasting geared to ever-smaller pockets of viewers (apparently it’s OK to have channels for gays or Cambodians or golfing fanatics, as long as they don’t compete on the same show), CBS is trying to create a program appealing to the widest amount of people, especially viewers who have grown weary of the same-ol’ same-ol’. They will tune in to root for (or even against) their “race.” Take that, World Cup!

Any stupid game show that can get tens of millions of people to talk about serious issues that affect us all (especially if we’re uncomfortable bringing it up) should be praised, not scorned. Unless, of course, a white male wins the million bucks, then looks into the camera during the live finale and mumbles something about a master race.