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Reality Or Racist TV?

The newest edition of CBS' popular television series "Survivor" has an interesting twist — segregation. In the early rounds, there will be four teams or "tribes" competing against each other: the White Tribe, the Hispanic Tribe, the African-American Tribe, and the Asian-American Tribe. There is no truth to the rumor that the winner will go up against the Hooded White Sheeted tribe.

I'm not an expert on this show. I saw an episode or two in the very first season. However, my main reaction was the same as it is to most "reality shows": Where is the reality? I find it hard to worry about someone who is supposedly in danger when I know that just off-camera is an entire film crew, medical personnel, and dozens of doughnuts.

But if I understand it correctly, competitors on "Survivor" have to figure out puzzles and pass various physical challenges. In the case of the newest survivor, the winner gets a million dollars. In the producers' minds, the show must have been getting a bit stale for them to come up with the new race-based version.

The host and producers of the show say that this idea came to them after interviewing many prospective contestants and seeing how important their culture and "ethnic pride" were to them. They also suggest that the show could actually help race relations, because it might dispel some long-held racial stereotypes.

Although celebrating ethnic diversity and helping eradicate racial problems from the face of the earth may have been the primary motives behind the show, I have the feeling that the desire for publicity and bigger ratings probably played a little part in the creative process, too.

It's probably natural for some members of the audience to root for people on the show that they identify with. It happens all the time in sports. Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were huge heroes to black people. Sandy Koufax could do no wrong in the eyes of his Jewish fans. While watching a boxing match on TV, the home audience will be reminded by the commentators that the Hispanic fans in the arena are "naturally" rooting for the Mexican boxer. And in Evander Holyfield's recent fight, I'm sure all of the white, 250-pound insurance salesmen watching the bout were rooting for Evander's opponent.

So, the audience rooting for a team based on race doesn't bother me nearly as much as the inevitable rooting against the other teams because of race. It's one thing if a family shouts, "Go White Guys" at the TV. It's quite another when they start making disparaging remarks about the opposing teams that don't happen to share their skin color.

There is at least one gambling site that is taking bets on the outcome of the show. That's right, they are giving different odds depending on the race of the tribe. If people actually bet money on this thing, you know there's going to be a lot of rooting and booing.

And how are members of the audience going to explain all this to their kids? Responsible parents spend a great deal of time demonstrating to their kids by word and example that they shouldn't have negative feelings about people of different races. Now, as they settle down to watch the show, are some of them going to excitedly say to their kids, "Tonight, I really think we're going to kick those Hispanics' butts?"

I know it's just a TV show. It's not going to change the world. But it will be seen by millions of people, and there are so many other choices the producers could have made. For example, they could have pitted wealthy CEOs against hard-working middle-class "tribes." It might have been interesting to see workers competing against their bosses to see who's better at surviving on an island. I guess having a Republican vying against a Democratic tribe wouldn't be a good idea. Both sides would ignore the rules and probably kill each other. But I'm sure there are other kinds of teams they could have come up with besides those based on race.

And if having teams based on race is a success, can pitting religious teams against each other be far behind? TV executives might not get that excited by the thought of Mennonite vs. Amish carriage race. But will they be able to resist having Jews, Christians, and Muslims fighting it out? I hope so, because we've been watching them fight in the real world for years, and, let's face it, there's nothing entertaining about it.

Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver