CBS Plays on Race

Anyone who watches any TV knows that low-cost reality shows make up a major part of networks' lineups. The problem with reality TV concepts, though, is that eventually reality sets in. Since TV is saturated with such offerings, viewers get bored and move on to the next new thing, and ratings for older shows slide, if not plummet. Sometimes, though, companies spice up old concepts with new themes in hopes of bumping up ratings. And that's just what CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) is doing with its long-running Survivor series. But in this case the change hardly seems like a good one.

CBS claims that ratings weren't behind its decision to divide teams in the next Survivor series along racial lines, but it's extremely hard to believe that publicity didn't play a role. The strategy is paying off. The New York Times, TheWashington Post, and the Chicago Tribune are all writing about it. And obviously, so am I.

It's certainly possible that this season's Survivor will get higher ratings, potentially helping CBS pull in more ad dollars. Race remains a hot issue in the United States, and many people who are not Survivor regulars will probably tune in out of curiosity. But if CBS handles the show sensitively, as it has promised, there won't be the controversy these viewers are looking for and they will move on.

Meanwhile, regular watchers could be turned off. While race is a topic well worth TV coverage, however sensitively CBS packages the show, it's easy to see how some people might be disgusted by the concept of pitting races against each other in a contest for money. And that means the show will lose some of last season's audience, which included 17 million viewers a week.

So, in the final calculation, unless CBS comes up with something even more sensational for the season after this one, Survivor will lose some regular viewers and not hold on to those searching for controversy. The latest theme, then, seems as likely to kill Survivor as rescue it.

Admittedly, the racial ploy probably won't cause irreparable damage to the media giant. Reality TV has been pushing the taste envelope for years and advertisers have been supporting it along the way. However, this move, along with CBS's ill-advised and much-hyped hiring of Katie Couric as CBS Evening News anchor, should start to raise questions in investors' minds as to whether CBS's leadership is on the right track.

For more on CBS:

Fool contributor Brian Gorman does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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