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CHANNEL ISLAND

Sponsors race to get off the island

September 04, 2006|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

GM and some other big advertisers have dumped their longtime sponsorship of "Survivor," but they insisted last week that the decision had nothing to do with the CBS show's new "ethnic" format, where teams will initially be divided along racial lines.

Instead, GM says it balked because the CBS reality show deposits castaways in remote locations where cars can't easily be incorporated into plotlines.

So it took six years and 12 editions to notice this? Yeah, right.

By integrating (if you will) race into its highly successful formula, "Survivor" is poised to step on the great third rail of American life, the same merciless power source that last summer zapped another reality show, "Welcome to the Neighborhood," which sought to show families of different ethnicities and sexual orientations competing for a house in a conservative white neighborhood. ABC was so unnerved by the hubbub that it squelched the show before the premiere and reportedly even refused to sell it to anyone else.

To its credit, CBS has shown more intestinal fortitude, though perhaps only because "Survivor" has proven such a durable cash cow since it first launched in 2000. (CBS said last week it had replaced GM with another advertiser, which it declined to name.) But there's been plenty of comedy from watching PR people strain to make the case that the sponsorship decision was unrelated to the racial component of "Survivor: Cook Islands," which starts Sept. 14. "It is my understanding that we did not know what the new format was when the decision was made," a GM spokesperson told the New York Times last week. In addition to GM, past "Survivor" advertisers, including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, are also mysteriously not returning.

The evident trick here is to distance the company from something unsettling and controversial without appearing to do so for fear of being exposed as, well, spineless and mealy mouthed.

Unfortunately for corporate communications departments, the timing seems more than a little suspect. GM and CBS say the car giant's decision was made in May, but one wonders why the news reached the wider world only after "Survivor's" ethnic theme was announced last month and greeted with outrage in some quarters.

But whatever the reason for the sponsor flight from "Survivor," it's bad news for both the show -- which deserves maybe equal measures of credit and blame for popularizing the reality-TV phenomenon -- and for so-called branded entertainment, the product placement trend that was supposed to save the television business from TiVo and other ad-skipping devices.

If advertisers are indeed running away from the racial theme, their hypocrisy knows no bounds. Some critics complain that dividing the contestants into ethnic groups smacks of old-fashioned social Darwinism. But the truth is that "Survivor" has always nurtured a divisive, dystopian, "Lord of the Flies"-type view of human nature. In fact, that's the whole fun of it. That's why we all loved watching Richard Hatch, the naked fat man, win the first season through brazen Machiavellian tactics (in a fitting coda, Hatch has since been imprisoned for tax fraud). So why criticize executive producer Mark Burnett and company for applying the "Survivor" world view to race, perhaps the most fundamentally American issue?

It's no secret that "Survivor" could use a ratings boost; average total viewers have dwindled from a high of 29.8 million for the second edition to a record low of 16.6 million for this year's "Survivor: Panama," according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. But no one outside CBS has seen the "Cook Islands" material, and it seems unfair to prejudge it based on nothing more than a logline -- something would-be cultural critics are always far too quick to do.

The GM pullout is maybe most ominous for what it says about sponsorships and product placements, which were supposed to be the wave of the future in television, a trend that would help finance shows as the market for traditional 30-second commercials declined.

Burnett has been a leader in this wave of "branded entertainment," doing an end run around the traditional TV business model by signing up advertisers like GM to highlight products in his shows.

"Survivor" is crammed with product placements; contestants have competed in "challenges" for brand-name shoes, snack chips and, yes, cars (the fact that winners of the auto challenge have never gone on to win the grand prize has led fans to postulate a so-called "Survivor" car curse).

"I hear some producers say they really don't want the advertising community involved in their precious creative work," Burnett enthused to the Hollywood Reporter in 2004. "What's more creative than telling 30-second stories and seeing billions of dollars of product fly off the shelves? The advertising community is very creative and very willing to work together with producers."

Burnett is now evidently learning the downside: that the ad community can also be willing to abandon anything that could possibly offend someone somewhere.

That brand of expedient loyalty shouldn't be unfamiliar to TV viewers. It's on display each week on "Survivor."

*

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins' television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at channelisland@latimes.com.

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