Mark Burnett says “racial differences are unlikely to matter” on Survivor Cook Islands

Mark Burnett has given his most extensive reply yet to his critics about the racially divided cast of Survivor Cook Islands. It’s in the form of a letter to the editor of today’s Cynopsis, an e.mail newsletter sent each morning by Cynthia Turner. Yesterday, for the first time ever, she included letters to the editor, all about Survivor. In today’s edition, Mark Burnett responded. His comments, with the irrelevant introduction excised, are as follows:

… I agree with the overriding sentiment which is “wait and see”. This sentiment clearly comes from rational people who have at least seen a few episodes of Survivor. These people can therefore logically deduct that racism is far more likely to be found in our modern world where socioeconomics, and by extension, race plays a large part in how people are associated with and even worse judged.

Whereas on a desert island where economics and social class count for nothing, it’s simply your ability to build a fire and catch fish that becomes of paramount importance. Add to this, the political nature of Survivor which is overlaid on the survivalist themes and you need to add in the criteria of “Do I like this person?” or “Can I convince this person to vote with me?”

Survivor is probably one of the greatest leadership and management tests you can witness. It’s almost like firing someone who works as your subordinate, then the next day, asking them to lobby “your boss” to give “you” a promotion. Survivor is the equivalent of this where the very people you play a part in getting rid of, are asked to turn around and reward you for it.

The premise in dividing tribes by ethnic pride was that racial differences are unlikely to matter one iota when the modern world is removed.

Were we correct?? Time will tell. All I can say is that the series will pull no punches and will at the very least show that behaving like an asshole isn’t the exclusive right of any particular race. It will also show that it’s impossible to stereotype people once you meet them and (even vicariously) live with them as they struggle to build a world.

– Mark Burnett

Look, I think Mark Burnett is a genius. He makes better television than at least half of the yahoos who produce dramas and comedies for the networks, and he’s changed reality TV forever. But his responses keep ignoring the fact that he divided the tribes by race. Simply having a racially diverse cast is one thing, and would likely accomplish much of what he describes above. But by separating the tribes, he’s created tribal loyalty based upon race, both for the audience and the players. Therein lies the problem, and that’s why some people are concerned.

Of course, Burnett has seen all of this play out, and also knows who won. Perhaps race is a non-issue for the cast, and will never be me mentioned by the castaways, who are instead more concerned with landing additional guest roles on CSI.

Cynopsis 9/6/06 [Cynopsis]