NEW YORK – If viewers had been taking "Survivor" for granted, here was an idea guaranteed to catch their eye: organize the players by race.
For "Survivor: Cook Islands," the 20 castaways will initially be split into four tribes along ethnic lines (black, white, Asian-American and Hispanic). The 13th cycle of the CBS adventure challenge premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. EDT, arriving on the heels of a burst of attention — including outrage that creator Mark Burnett had played the race card with his players.
From the first announcement of the show's new concept in late August, pundits were fulminating.
A Wall Street Journal editorial accused the show of "playing up identity-politics in a crude and potentially rancorous way."
In the Hollywood Reporter, Ray Richmond blasted Burnett for "tapping a raw segregationist nerve and exploiting America's obsession with race for personal gain."
Meanwhile, several members of the New York City Council were denouncing the show for promoting divisiveness. "How could anybody be so desperate for ratings?" posed Councilman John Liu, who is Asian-American.
Then New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman observed that these city officials included members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
"In other words," wrote Haberman, "leading the condemnation of CBS for creating teams defined by race and ethnicity was a team that created itself using race and ethnicity as the definition."
When asked by The Associated Press his reaction to all the flack, Burnett replied, "I'm not shocked. I just think truly any rational person would wait to see what happens."
The harshest critics, he said, "could look pretty stupid if it becomes the most positive thing for removing stereotypes. And I hope that the people who've made the loudest comments will, in the adverse, also be the loudest congratulators if they're wrong."
Detractors and other interested parties have to wait until Thursday to see if the show deserved all the fuss: Though shooting on the Cook Islands in the South Pacific has wrapped, CBS kept the episodes under wraps from the press. No point in killing the pre-launch buzz.
Last week, the show's host, Jeff Probst, joined Burnett in asking viewers to withhold judgment until they've taken a peek.
The new series is featuring "the most ethnic-diverse cast in the history of TV, as far as I know," Probst said during a teleconference with reporters — and, he added, the freshest, least "Survivor"-savvy group of players since the pioneering castaways of season one.
As they compete for the $1 million prize, they won't be modeling the same old game plans that have worked before, he said. "We don't have people coming in saying, `I'm gonna be just like Colby."'
Last season, the show divided contestants into groups of older men, younger men, older women and younger women. This season's organizing principal, Probst said, was conceived "in terms of ethnic pride, not discrimination.
"But then you have to vote somebody out from your own group, and that complicates things," he went on. "How are you going to do it? Because now it's going to come down to who's contributing and who isn't."
Later, when a number of players have been voted off, the thinned-out ranks will be consolidated and integrated. Then, Probst explained, the issue becomes whether to stay loyal to members of your own ethnic group, "because you've already made bonds based simply on skin color.
"Or, more likely, will you look to make alliances with people who ... will help you to the end, so you can win?"