Is This the Most Racist Season in ‘Survivor’ History?

Survivor is well-known for always having another twist or trick up its sleeve. Just when you think you’ve seen the most ridiculous twist possible, Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett pull out something more intense for the next season. That’s part of what brings people back to the show. However, there are times when these plans backfire. There’s one season with a twist that seems way too inappropriate to air — but it aired anyway. As a result, this particular season of Survivor has gone down in history as possibly the most racist season aired.

What was the twist of ‘Survivor: Cook Islands’?

Mark Burnett, Yul Kwon, winner of "Survivor: Cook Islands" and Jeff Probst
Mark Burnett, Yul Kwon, winner of “Survivor: Cook Islands” and Jeff Probst | Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Survivor: Cook Islands was the CBS mainstay’s 13th season, and certainly one of its most controversial. The season introduced twenty castaways, who were then split into four tribes based entirely on ethnicity. The season was filmed in 2006, and the winner was Queens native Yul Kwon.

On a much less controversial note, this was also the first season that featured a final three rather than a final four.

But why?

Jeff Probst
Jeff Probst | CBS via Getty Images

Upon hearing the concept, probably the first question in most people’s minds was, “why?” It’s obviously a controversial choice, and depending on how it was handled and received, could easily have meant the end of either Burnett or Probst’s careers.

In a conversation with Entertainment Weekly, Probst said, “Oddly enough, a lot of it started in the offices of Entertainment Weekly,” claimed Probst. ”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.”

Added Mark Burnett, “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.” That’s a bold claim, especially since we’ve seen our fair share of racist contestants in the past.

At the time, Survivor was likely in need of a numbers boost. The previous season had earned them some of their lowest numbers to date. Probst says the CBS executives were shocked by their idea at first.

“At the very beginning, it was silence,” Probst told Entertainment Weekly. ”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.”’

Dealing with controversy

Jeff Probst
Jeff Probst | CBS via Getty Images

Jeff Probst loves to rock the boat. For him, Survivor is a game of social politics, and this was an opportunity to put that at the forefront. Naturally, there was concern for CBS about the inevitable controversy.

In an interview with The Slug, Probst said, “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.”

Amongst the contestants, there were a number of reactions. Probst told The Slug, “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.”