CBS reveals 'Survivor: Cook Islands' cast, confirms racial tribe division
By Reality TV World staff, 08/23/2006
Confirming weeks of rumors, CBS has revealed the identities of the twenty castaways who will be competing in this fall's Survivor: Cook Islands and announced that the castaways will -- in what the show's producer and host both acknowledge to be a controversial move -- initially be organized into four tribes divided along ethnic lines (African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Caucasian.)
"We're going to take some heat for it," Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett acknowledged to People about the segregated tribe decision that will no doubt give the thirteenth edition of the long-running reality series -- which will also include the return of last season's new Exile Island concept -- some extra buzz. "But it's a great cast." "Some people will think this is controversial. Others will think, 'What's the big deal?'" Survivor host Jeff Probst added. "Either way, it's going to be very interesting."
According to Probst, the Cook Islands' segregated tribes concept is the end result of the show's attempt to respond to longstanding criticism that Survivor's casts needed more diversity. "The idea for this actually came from the criticism that Survivor was not ethnically diverse enough because, for whatever reason, we've always had a low number of minority applicants apply to the show. So we set out and said, 'Let's turn this criticism into creative for the show," Probst explained during a Wednesday morning The Early Show appearance in which CBS officially revealed the season's cast.
But while the producers did originally plan to make this season's Survivor edition "the most ethnically diverse cast in the history of TV," they didn't initially plan to divide the cast by ethnicity. "Our original idea was simply to have the most ethnically diverse group of people on TV," Probst explained to The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "It wasn't until we got to casting and started noticing this theme of ethnic pride that you're alluding to that we started thinking, wow, if culture is still playing such a big part in these peopleís lives, thatís our idea -- let's divide them based on ethnicity."
"From where I sit, I found it to be one of the freshest ideas we've had going back to the beginning of this show in Season One," said Probst. "I think it fits in perfectly with what Survivor does, which is, it is a social experiment, and this is adding another layer to that experiment which is taking the show to a completely different level." "I think at first glance, when you just hear the idea, it could sound like a stunt. Especially with the way reality has gone, it wouldn't be unusual. But that's not what we're doing here."
However since, as Probst noted to Smith, producers have always maintained that the reason that Survivor wasn't more diverse was that few minorities ever apply to the show, the desire to cast an extremely diverse cast meant that the show's casting directors had to get especially creative for this season. Branching more outside the traditional
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application process than in past seasons, Survivor casting scouts reportedly found minority contestants at sporting events (Nate), in the audition tapes of rejected The Amazing Race applicants, and websites like MySpace.com (Becky), and even Realtor.com (Jenny.)
Unfortunately for those expecting something similar to the show's traditional geographically diverse cast, the casting directors don't appear to have spread out very far beyond California's state borders -- while only five of Cook Island's castaways identify themselves as native Californians, an overwhelming thirteen of the twenty castaways currently call the Golden State home and at least nine of them live in the Los Angeles area. At least two of the contestants -- an actress and an actor/writer/producer that CBS lists as a "writer/producer" despite having more acting credits than writing or producing credits -- also appear to work in the Los Angeles entertainment industry.
According to Probst, the Survivor: Cook Islands castaways had a "mixed" reaction to the news that their tribes would be divided by race. "Yuhl wasn't sure... Yuhl was concerned we were going to turn this into something that would show stereotypes and reinforce them," Probst told Smith. "On the other hand, you have people like Rebecca, who said, 'I don't really care how you divide it because I know that I need a certain amount of people to be on my side to help me get through this.' Ultimately, to win this game, you're voting people out that are then on the jury that have to come back and vote for you. So, the person who wins is actually going to do the best job of merging with all different ethnicities."
Despite the focus on casting a diverse cast, Burnett insists that the initial Cook Islands tribal divisions (the tribes will merge "in a later episode") are not about exploring racism or bigotry. "We're smart enough to not make it negative," Burnett told Entertainment Weekly. "We're smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting."
But despite the desire for a shake-up, CBS executives -- perhaps still gun shy about how last fall's Family Edition change appears to have permanently damaged the ratings of its The Amazing Race reality series -- took some time to sign off on the show's segregated tribes idea. "At the very beginning, [the reaction] was silence," said Probst. "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.'"
According to Probst, the addition of ethically-divided tribes and inclusion of so many minority castaways has fundamentally changed the long-running series -- perhaps (for better or worse) forever. "It's not just 18 white people," the Survivor host explained to EW. 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."
• Cecilia Mansilla (Hispanic Tribe), a 29-year-old technology risk consultant who currently resides in Oakland, CA and is originally from Arequipa, Peru
• Sundra Oakley (African-American Tribe), a 31-year-old working actress who currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and is originally from New York, NY
• Jonathan Penner (Caucasian Tribe), a 44-year-old writer/producer who currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and is originally from New York, NY
• Parvati Shallow (Caucasian Tribe), a 23-year-old boxer and waitress who currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and is originally from Atlanta, GA
• Jessica Smith (Caucasian Tribe), a 27-year-old performance artist and rollergirl from Chico, CA
• Brad Virata (Asian-American Tribe), a 29-year-old fashion director who currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and is originally from Seattle, WA
• Candice Woodcock (Caucasian Tribe), a 23-year-old pre-med student from Fayetteville, NC
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