There was a racial reckoning in this country in the aftermath of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor tragedies in the spring of 2020. Long overdue change was in the air everywhere, including in the realm of reality TV. Conceived and billed as a microcosm of society, reality competition shows all too often did not accurately reflect the many ethnicities in America today.
That put the spotlight squarely on CBS, the home of network TV's three longest running reality shows in Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. So headlines were made on Nov. 9 when CBS announced that all future reality casts would contain at least 50 percent Black, Indigenous and people of color.
"The reality TV genre is an area that's especially underrepresented, and needs to be more inclusive across development, casting, production and all phases of storytelling," said George Cheeks, president and chief executive officer for the CBS Entertainment Group (and Chief Content Officer, News and Sports, Paramount+). "As we strive to improve all of these creative aspects, the commitments announced today are important first steps in sourcing new voices to create content and further expanding the diversity in our unscripted programming, as well as on our network."
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor' 43
The results were immediate. The following season of Big Brother (season 23) saw the formation of the Cookout alliance — a group of six Black contestants who ran the game, leading to the history victory of the show's first (non-celebrity edition) Black winner, Xavier Prather.
And seasons 41 and 42 of Survivor — which were filmed before season 23 of Big Brother, but aired after — featured the show's most diverse casts in 27 seasons and culminated in the victories of Erika Casupanen (the show's first Filipino champion) and Maryanne Oketch (the franchise's second Black female to win). Erika and Maryanne also both happen to be Canadian, but that's another story.
When he looks back at how the show hit the casting jackpot with a flurry of big characters and even bigger players over the past two seasons, host and executive producer Jeff Probst says all the credit goes to his network boss. "It all circles back to when George Cheeks laid out the new CBS diversity casting mandate," Probst tells EW. "Having the power and the courage to make that happen forever changed Survivor."
Robert Voets/CBS 'Survivor' host Jeff Probst
As for Survivor 43 (which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on CBS), the host says to expect more of the same. "The Survivor 43 players come from so many different types of backgrounds, experiences, and cultures and that leads to really unique stories," says Probst. "I love this group of players."
The host notes how the diverse cast of Survivor 43 also led to a lot of diverse reactions on his part for a season that truly runs the emotional gamut: "This entire season was so unpredictable. Some days I was laughing, other days I was moved, and some days I was just completely perplexed by what was going on!"
The contestants were perplexed as well by what the host was throwing back at them, courtesy of a new slew of changes to game designed to keep them constantly on their toes. "The biggest hint I can give to fans and future players is that in this new era, it's really not about new specific twists or wrinkles," says Probst. "Yes, we may have some, we may have a lot, we may have none. But because this new version is still so new, it doesn't ultimately matter. It's the overall uncertainty that makes the daily decisions so fraught and that is what keeps the players off-balance."
A now-balanced cast being kept off-balance is music to our ears.
Watch the first four minutes of the Survivor 43 season premiere at the top of this article, and for more Survivor news and views, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.