Burnett opts to play the amazing race card

Burnett opts to play the amazing race card

Let's just face it: Mark Burnett is one evil genius. The megaproducer has an aging franchise on his hands in CBS' "Survivor" that's still pulling in the numbers but whose buzz disappeared eons ago. What to do? Simple. Tweak the format to turn the reality pioneer into "The Amazing Race Card," stir the pot a few times, and presto! Instant controversy!

All Burnett had to do was give his baby a little bit of that Birmingham, Alabama, 1961 feeling to restore its luster in the popular consciousness. He decides for the forthcoming "Survivor: Cook Islands" (premiering Sept. 13) to divide the four tribes of castaways along racial lines -- with African-American, Asian-American, Latino and Caucasian teams competing presumably for pride of ethnicity -- and all heck breaks loose.

Advertisers start to withdraw, headed by General Motors last week (though all of the departing corporations insist there's no connection between the new format and the decision to pull their ads). New York City community leaders also held a rally last Tuesday in front of CBS headquarters protesting the show's premise, which couldn't have been better timed if Burnett had staged it himself.

To be sure, the massive chatter and unease that has erupted in the wake of the "Survivor" gimmick's announcement figures to more than offset any income shortfall from sponsor defections. All that matters is, people care about "Survivor" again. You get the feeling that Burnett has been carrying around this little Molotov cocktail for a couple of years just waiting for the right moment to fling it and ignite the firestorm.

Overly cynical, you say? Not bloody likely. Not when it comes to Burnett, who is nothing if not a brilliant tactician and marketeer with his finger perpetually on the zeitgeist. That he's tapping a raw segregationist nerve and exploiting America's obsession with race for personal gain is undeniable by all except, purportedly, the man himself.

While it would seem the height of disingenuousness for Burnett to feign ignorance at why this has spurred such knee-jerk debate, that's precisely what he's doing -- and it's no doubt just another element of the scheme. In an interview last week that ran over AP, he actually voiced irritation with the furor and explained, "By putting (like) people in tribes, they clearly have to get rid of people of their own ethnicity. So that's not racial at all." Huh?

Burnett also added that he hoped "maybe the taboo (of race) could disappear" through this new gambit. Oh sure, absolutely.

What Burnett well knows is that we're all about race and negative stereotyping and ethnic profiling in the U.S. It's who we are. It's what we do. Turning this into "Survivor: Skin City" was a no-brainer because it taps such a reliable discussion heater. It was all but certain to breathe new life into a concept that had grown increasingly ho-hum.

Here is a truth we love to pretend doesn't exist: We're a nation of people who like to hang with birds of our similar feather, either largely or exclusively. This is the reality whether we be talking race, religion, color or creed. We're obviously not quite as socially insular as we once were, but the predilection seems largely to be part of the American DNA.

Race is also reality TV's dirty little secret, hauled out of the closet by Omarosa on "The Apprentice" or by the judges on "American Idol." Nobody ever went broke overestimating the potential for racial discomfort and outright bigotry of the citizenry.

So while Burnett is merely dragging segregation out of the shadows and into the spotlight for a couple of months, it's nonetheless a master stroke from a transplanted Brit who knows us better than we know ourselves.