Race sells . . . doesn’t it?

Marketplace Staff Oct 19, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: If you’re one of those Survivor addicts — and you know who you are — tonight’s the night to see who gets voted off the island. But even if you’re not a fan, you probably heard about CBS adding a twist at the beginning of the season. It separated contestants by race. Nice advertising gimmick.

Didn’t work so well, though. Some big sponsors, like General Motors and Coca Cola, pulled out before the season started. Took nearly $26 million with them, too. Adding insult to injury, the ratings weren’t so hot. So, after a couple of episodes, Survivor scrapped the whole idea. Youth Radio commentator Jordan Monroe says it’s a shame they did.

JORDAN MONROE: When I saw the groups on this season’s run of “Survivor”— the Whites, Asians, Hispanics and Blacks — hey, I wanted to be mad, I wanted to be surprised, but I wasn’t.

Within a few minutes, I was actually entertained. I didn’t get the sense the contestants were trying to prove their racial superiority. Let’s be real, Survivor’s gimmick was all about the Benjamins. Like sex, drugs and rock and roll, race sells.

What’s interesting to me is that I didn’t hear anyone my age complaining. No signs of disapproval on Myspace. And no gossip about it at school. Young people sometimes prefer to be with their own racial groups.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate and respect ethnic differences. Because we’ve also grown up being exposed to people of different ethnicities.

Take me, for example. I was raised in the Bay Area, a cultural melting pot. So when the subject of race comes up, I don’t start hyper-perspiring. Instead, like many of my peers, I’m willing and open to talk about race. So, the race-separate groups of Survivor didn’t frighten me. Instead, they pointed to a reality I already understood.

Now, I do understand the hullabaloo. It can definitely be risky business to incorporate serious social issues into an entertaining reality show.

But I think that the producers of Survivor may have missed a golden opportunity to make television history. Sure they were pushing buttons, but if they kept the race-based teams separated, viewers may have seen that race isn’t always “black and white.” We all expected racial tension, but instead we got tension between the women and men in the Black group, distrust and backstabbing within the Latino and White groups, and self-stereotyping among Asians.

That’s where the show started getting interesting.

Now the question is: With Survivor’s controversial experiment over, will viewers stay tuned in? Well it worked for me. Since I’ve already invested five weeks into it, I might as well watch the rest.

In Los Angeles, I’m Jordan Monroe for Marketplace.

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