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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Jeff Probst Talks "Survivor" Segregation

082206survivor (AP Photo/HO/CBS)

The Slug wanted to know if all those rumors about the upcoming "Survivor: Cook Islands" splitting the tribes by race were true. So we went to the Tribal Council master himself to find out. Hold onto your torches, survivors, because Jeff Probst says the rumors are 100 percent factual. At the beginning of the 13th season, the 20 castaways (pictured aboved) will be divided into four tribes of five by race — black, white, Hispanic and Asian — and then later, as always, merged. Read everything Probst had to say about the racial divide after the jump.

The Slug: How did ya'll come up with the idea of grouping the tribes by race?

Jeff Probst: Every season, we sit down and ask one question, which is: What are we gonna do this time? We weren't happy with the ideas we were coming up with. Somebody suggested, well, what are we criticized for? Is there something we can address that's been a negative and turn it into a positive? And the first thing that came out of everybody's mouth is we're criticized for "Survivor" being, basically, a white show. The truth is 80 percent of the people that apply are white. And television, in general, is white. So all these criticisms were valid. We said, "Is it possible to bring more ethnic diversity to this show?" It started this journey we haven't been through in a long time.

TS: What were the difficulties in casting?

JP: The first problem was we don't have Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Latinos applying to the show. So our casting director Lynne (Spiegel Spillman) started courting people. We do our casting all over the country. So she had her casting associates going all over the country to find specific groups where we could find Asian-Americans, maybe a cultural center or a certain part of town where more Latinos live. We really just took off all blinders and said we want to find 20 people to play this game and we're really gonna have to source them out.

I'm not sure of the exact number, but about 85 percent of the people on the show were recruited. In other words, these are people that did not apply, maybe not have seen "Survivor" or even cared about "Survivor." We told them nothing about the way we were gonna group them because we didn't even know that at the time. Our original goal was to have more ethnic diversity on the show.

TS: What was it like trying to cast different races?

JP: It was fun. It was like season one. We were seeing all sorts of fresh points of view and people with backgrounds that were not so similar to things we've seen for the last several years. As we started talking, we kept talking about ethnic pride. It kept coming up. For instance, someone would say, "I'm Latino and take my background very seriously." We thought, "There's more to this." As we kept talking to them, we started realizing the idea is to divide them this way. Rather than just start with 20 people, let's have four even tribes of the four most popular ethnic groups in America.

TS: What was your reaction to this idea?

JP: The idea came up and there was silence in the room because I think everybody knew it was the right choice. But would CBS have the courage to do it? From their point of view, this is a franchise that's still performing well. It's worked in the past. Why would you change it? It's risky.

People are very touchy about even saying the word race or even bringing up the notion of different ethnic groups working together or maybe not working so well together. What if they don't get along? What if it's a disaster? What if we set back the whole notion of integration? (CBS President Leslie) Moonves said, "Yes, I want you to do it. If you do it, I want you to do it right. Don't back off of it. Just do it." That's all we needed to hear.

TS: So what does this do to the game? Is it more or less fair now?

JP: I think what we did is add another layer to the social experiment. It's always been a show about taking people from different walks of life and forcing them to live together. Now we're doing the thing that everybody's afraid to talk about. Can people from different ethnic groups get along? Is one group going to do better than the other? Or are we going to find when you force people to work together that ethnicity fades away? Hunger doesn't discriminate. And now it becomes a human experience.

TS: Was anybody afraid this might offend viewers?

JP: I think that was the big concern that CBS had. It's very risky because you're bringing up a topic that is a hot button. There's a history of segregation you can't ignore. It is a part of our history. For that, it's much safer to say, "No, let's just stick with things as they are. Let's don't be the network to rock the boat. Let's not have 'Survivor' try something new."

But the biases from home can't affect you. This is an equal opportunity game. Twenty people are given the same materials, the same odds of wining a million dollars. We're gonna start you out in your own ethnic group so you're not a minority unless you're a minority in your own ethnic group, which is possible. And then, as you know from watching this game, at some point you're going to integrate. And the person who wins this game will integrate the best. I believe that's what will happen.

TS: How did the players react to the division?

JP: Their reaction was varied. I remember Yul (Kwon), who's on the Asian-American tribe, was concerned that we were going to portray people based on stereotypes. To which we said, "We don't portray you in any way. We just observe you and put the show on." And that reassured him. There were a few people who thought it was really exciting. I know Nate (Gonzalez) on the African-American team thought it was a great idea. He was jazzed about it. Rebecca (Borman), on the same tribe, thought it had absolutely no bearing.

One thing we were cognizant of in casting the show, we weren't looking to put a white supremacist on with a member of the NAACP. We weren't looking for extremes to show that people do have racial biases or ethnic biases. That would be a different show.

TS: Now we all know in "Survivor" there are physical and mental competitions. Any concern about having the images of people of different races competiting against each other, possibly harboring some racial discrimination?

JP: We learned early on in "Survivor" if you take 10 people and give five of them a red flag and five of them a white flag, you'll have a rivalry. You don't need any more differences than "Your flag is a different color than my flag." That's why "Survivor" works. Now, the differences are more obvious. We don't need to explain what they are. In the beginning, are you wanting to beat the other tribes? Absolutely. That's how you get farther in the game. The question is: Do you want to beat them because they're a different ethnicity or because they're your competition?

TS: "Cook Islands" is the first season after all the "Is Jeff Probst gonna come back?" talk. How was it?

JP: This is the most fun I've had since season one. I think you'll see in the first act. The open to this season is the most energized open we've had since season one. We went back to season one and did the same open because that was the best open we ever did — put people on a boat and give 'em a couple of minutes to get off.

RELATED: "Survivor" segregation [asap]

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