The new season divides the contestants into Asian, White, Black, and Hispanic teams. What on earth is CBS thinking? Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst try to explain
Credit: Survivor Cook Island: monty Brinton

It is day one of what could end up being the biggest mistake of Mark Burnett’s career, but the Survivor executive producer is downright giddy. Sitting in a trailer next to the crew catering tent on the remote Polynesian island of Aitutaki, Burnett is reveling in the just-filmed opening sequence for Survivor: Cook Islands (debuting Sept. 14 on CBS). ”This is a really likable group,” he says of the 20 new contestants. Likable? Perhaps. Controversial? Definitely. That’s because Survivor has turned the quest for a $1 million into a war of the races — segregating whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics into four separate tribes.

Where did such an idea come from? Hey, don’t look at us! Or, on second thought… ”Oddly enough, a lot of it started in the offices of Entertainment Weekly,” says host Jeff Probst, either generously giving credit or coyly assigning blame. ”I would come in and always get asked, ‘Why aren’t there more black people on the show? Where are all the Asians?’ So the idea [was] to take on something we are criticized for. We decided, let’s try to have the most ethnically diverse cast in the history of TV.”

To achieve that, producers had to not only think outside the box, but look outside the box as well. Because the number of minority applicants to Survivor is so small, the casting department went into heavy recruitment mode, searching everywhere from sporting events (where they found contestant Nate) to websites like MySpace (Becky) and even (Jenny). But assembling a diverse cast is one thing; pitting them against each other is another altogether. ”To the less-than-openminded person, it is very easy to trash us… But we’re smart enough to not make it negative,” says Burnett. ”We’re smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting.”

Of course, Burnett is also smart enough to realize that his show — now about to enter its 13th installment — was in need of an attention-grabbing boost. Last season’s Panama-Exile Island posted the franchise’s lowest numbers ever — an average of 16.8 million viewers. And even Burnett admits that ”quite frankly, for a couple of seasons we’ve been getting the same stuff.” Even though a big shake-up was in order, CBS executives were understandably shocked when Burnett presented them with his ethnically divided concept. ”At the very beginning, it was silence,” says Probst of the network’s reaction. ”What was being suggested was an extremely risky idea with a franchise that has delivered top ratings for six years. It would have been much easier to say, ‘Continue as you have.’ But at the end of the day, they said, ‘Go for it.”’ While CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler admits that the twist did require a fair amount of internal discussion, she points out that it is certainly in keeping with the program’s raison d’être. ”Survivor is a show that explores social politics,” she says. ”So, what can you explore that leads to those kinds of really interesting discussions?”

That said, reality TV has a long, not-so-proud history of running exploitative gimmicks under the guise of exploring social politics (see: The Littlest Groom, Boy Meets Boy, Playing It Straight, Welcome to the Neighborhood…oh, we could go on all day), but Burnett insists that dividing groups up by ethnicity is more than just a cheap stunt. ”I’ve learned that the social time you spend is predominantly in your own ethnic group,” reasons Burnett. ”And that very much reminded me of Survivor, because you’re in a tribe, and yet that tribe is going to change, maybe multiple times.” So what happens to tribal/racial bonds when the camps integrate…uh, make that ”merge”? Those are the types of moments that will ultimately make or break Cook Islands.

For Probst, the new twist has the added benefit of giving the show a freshness it hasn’t had since season 1. ”It’s not just 18 white people,” he says. ”Suddenly you have new slang, new rituals, people doing things like making fire in ways that haven’t been done before on Survivor. I think we have a season where people will say you can never go back to what you were before.” What remains to be seen is whether that is a good thing.