Survivor to Divide Teams by Race

08/23/2006 at 09:00 AM EDT

Survivor to Divide Teams by Race
Survivor: Cook Islands castaways
Monty Brinton/CBS
Fueled by critics who slammed its lack of diversity, CBS's Survivor has unveiled a new twist for its upcoming season: Contestants will be divided by ethnicity.

When it premieres Sept. 14, Survivor: Cook Islands will feature 20 castaways divided into four tribes: black, white, Asian and Latino.

"We're going to take some heat for it," says creator and executive producer Mark Burnett of the twist, which was announced Wednesday morning. "But it's a great cast."

For a show entering its 13th season with steady ratings but ebbing buzz, the decision could be a shot in the arm if it once again generates Survivor water-cooler chatter.

"Some people will think this is controversial. Others will think, 'What's the big deal?' " host Jeff Probst tells PEOPLE. "Either way, it's going to be very interesting."

Along with the usual real-estate agents and struggling actors, the cast of characters competing for the $1 million purse includes a heavy-metal guitarist, a female police officer who has been shot in the line of duty, a Vietnam War refugee who manages a nail salon and a gay fashion director for a denim company.

The segregated Survivor grew from an effort to diversify a show that has featured primarily white contestants (and winners – only two of the 12 winners have been minorities). "We've taken a lot of flack," says Burnett.

But Probst says the main reason for the Emmy-winning show's largely white complexion was a dearth of minority applicants. "Most of the people who apply are white," he says. "That's just a fact."

In response, the Survivor casting team scouted for a more diverse group of players everywhere from the Internet to audition tapes for another CBS show, The Amazing Race.

Until the tribes merge later in the season, the four teams will battle each other and, perhaps, racial stereotypes. "There are going to be people looking for stereotypes: Will this tribe be smarter than this tribe, or will this tribe be faster than this tribe?" says Probst. "That's why I think it's fun. But five people on a tribe do not represent an entire ethnic group."

Set in New Zealand's Cook Islands, the location of the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty, this season features a pirate theme, including Tribal Councils held on an elaborate shipwreck set built into the rocky coastline of a local island.

Whether one ethnicity ends up plundering – or walking the plank – "This is a game that starts very even," says Probst. "Everybody starts the same way with the same materials and the same chance: a 1-in-20 shot at a million bucks."

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