EW Game Changers is a new series profiling the people and projects making an impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion in entertainment.
When Liana Wallace was little, watching survivor was a reward for drinking during bath time. Her ella brother Andre would channel host Jeff Probst by lighting candles during Tribal Council and snuffing out the “torch” of the eliminated contestant — always played by her ella other brother, Jordan. They were “super into” the show, says 21-year-old Wallace, even though their dad would occasionally walk into the room and question why no one on the CBS reality series looked like his family: “Where are all the Black folks?”
Her dad’s observations were top of mind when she was flown out to be a contestant on season 41 of survivor last March. But while waiting out the required COVID quarantine in a Fiji hotel, Wallace was able to lay eyes on her competition from her — which included five other Black players, a first for the 21-year-old show. “We couldn’t talk to our families once we were out playing, but during the quarantine, we had these little burner phones. I had one number that I could put on it, and it was my brother. So I called and was like , ‘Andre, this is the most diverse cast I have ever seen,'” recalls the Georgetown University student. “It was shocking.”
It’s also the standard moving forward on CBS. Two months after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd ignited historic protests around the globe, the network embarked on a series of initiatives to increase representation in front of and behind the camera. Chief among them: a goal that 50 percent of the casts for their unscripted shows — including Love Island, Tough as Nailsand the upcoming Come Dance With Me — be BIPOC (an acronym that expands on “people of color” to acknowledge the historical injustices faced by Black and Indigenous Americans). The mission’s first notable result occurred last summer on big brother 23 when six Black players formed the Cookout alliance — making it to the end together and crowning BB‘s first Black winner, Xavier Prather. “I’ve attended schools where I’d look around the room and be the only Black person. It’s been like that for most of my life,” says 27-year-old Prather, an attorney from Michigan. “So, to go in and finally see more people who would look like me — it gave me a certain level of comfort that’s hard to explain. It just gave me a sense of ease.”
In the September premiere of survivora visibly enthusiastic Jeff Probst introduced the most diverse cast in the show’s history (with the exception of 2006’s criticized Cook Islands, dubbed the “race war” season by fans because contestants were divided into tribes by ethnicity). “Everything about day one of survivor 41 signaled a rebirth for survivor,” says Probst. “I was beaming. The players felt it too. They knew they were part of something very special.”
The initiatives are the brainchild of George Cheeks, who took over as president and CEO in March 2020 after a turbulent period at the company. As CBS’ first Black, biracial, and gay president, Cheeks has been tasked with starting a new chapter for the network, which saw its brand tarnished when former CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves was accused of sexual harassment and assault. (Moonves, who denied any wrongdoing, resigned in 2018.) One of Moonves’ crowning achievements was the acquisition of survivor in 1999, but his administration’s indifference to diversity led to a disproportionate number of white players on the beach, as well as across CBS’ reality schedule. “As a fan of shows like survivor, the representation of people of color felt very tokenish,” says Cheeks, in his first press interview about the initiatives. “I understood why contestants felt pressure to represent entire races because they were the only people of color in the cast. It offered up a real opportunity for meaningful change.”
Even before Cheeks announced the initiatives, seeds of change were taking root. In the summer of 2020, Black survivor alums went on a podcast hosted by former contestant Rob Cesternino and recounted disturbing stories from filming. Rory Thompson (season 9) shared that a tribemate called him the N-word and producers discouraged him from mentioning it on camera. Jolanda Jones (season 10) said producers asked her about the “angry Black woman” trope during auditions, then made her out to be one in editing. “I actually thought survivor honestly portrayed players,” she told EW in October 2020. “I was wrong.”
After sending a letter to CBS on the Juneteenth holiday, a contingent of past survivor players including season 28’s Brice Johnston and J’Tia Hart met virtually with execs — among them CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and Probst, also an executive producer on survivor — to urge the network and studio to diversify both the cast and crew. “We tried to show them what these types of tropes do to the Black community, especially after the civil unrest,” remembers Johnston, a social worker and podcast host. “We know that the majority of their viewers come from middle America, and a lot of them might not have a lot of contact with people of color in their normal life.” Cheeks wasn’t in that meeting but finds the alums’ concerns “entirely consistent with what I would’ve expected.”
As for casting, Probst says people of color haven’t traditionally auditioned for survivor at the same rate as white applicants, “but in hindsight, it should not be surprising. If you don’t see someone who looks like you, then you’re less likely to apply. Another benefit of the BIPOC goal is that the more diversity on our show, the more diversity we will see in our applications,” Probst says. “Despues de survivor 41, we’re already seeing a difference in who is applying and the players they reference as inspiration.”
Sadly, the success of the casting initiatives is not without controversy. big brother fans accustomed to 22 seasons of mostly white alliances — and mostly white winners — complained via social media that the show was guilty of “reverse racism” for allowing the Cookout. A similar attempt at an all-Black alliance was made on survivor 41 by Wallace, Danny McCray, Deshawn Radden, and Shantel “Shan” Smith, but it was abandoned when McCray thought Smith betrayed him, so she was eliminated in episode 10.
Former contestants bristle at the accusations of reverse racism, especially since no one ever questions the white alliances that form year after year. “Racism is antagonistic behavior against a marginalized or minority group — neither of which white people are in the US,” he says survivor‘s Hart, who is now the chief science officer for national and homeland security at the Idaho National Laboratory. “We don’t say anything when [white people] have common bonds and use their commonality to get ahead in this world like they’ve been doing since they brought Black people here in 1619. If we get together on a reality show, let us have that. let us have that.”
Unfortunately, a faction of viewers said no to that and took their ugly opinions all the way to Cheeks, who received harassing messages on his cell phone. “It was a little jarring because a lot of them talked about how they believe a gay man of color running CBS was the cause of the downfall of these shows,” he says. “That hit me harder than I expected. With any change comes blowback, but the personalizing of it was a little challenging for me. But it comes with the territory.”
And the producers don’t expect new Cookouts to form season after season. “Every cast is unique, and every game plays out differently,” says BB executive producer Rich Meehan. “It’s very hard to pull off the exact same winning strategy as a prior season. That unpredictability is what we love.”
Now that the casting mandates are set in stone, Cheeks’ sights are on CBS’ scripted fare. So far, he’s optimistic about the progress, citing the 13 leads of color in their current lineup (including NCIS: Hawaiian‘s Vanessa Lachey and ghosts‘ Utkarsh Ambudkar), a 20 percent increase over the last season. Cheeks also set a goal that all writers rooms on the network’s primetime series be staffed 40 percent BIPOC in the 2021-22 season; 17 out of 21 shows hit or exceeded that target. (On average, scripted series have anywhere from eight to 12 writers on staff.) “This is just the beginning,” says Cheeks. “There’s a lot of work to do to really bring sustainable change.”
Some of that positive change came courtesy of Wallace, who wrapped her time on survivor with an impassioned speech at Tribal Council about how “coming here to play this is about uplifting other Black people and giving Black people something to root for.” “I’m so thankful to the producers and how they edited it, the story they tried to tell the audience,” Wallace says now. “I’m also thankful for the previous players who really pushed to have this kind of mandate of greater representation on the show. It’s a step in the right direction.”
A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weeklyon newsstands Feb. 18. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.