The Inspired

Mark Burnett
December 1, 2001

Mark Burnett

Two years ago, Mark Burnett believed his new series would be huge. Every producer believes his program will be big, but Burnett was right – Survivor was huge.

Burnett’s first major triumph with the series was convincing CBS to schedule it in primetime, a decision the U.S. network never regretted.Viewer interest in Survivor spread across North America like a brushfire, prompting CBS to pit the second series (Survivor: The Australian Outback) against NBC’s blockbuster Friends. Survivor beat the sitcom in ratings, an event Burnett deems one of his most significant achievements of the year.

Survivor’s success opened the eyes of major U.S. network execs to the idea of programming non-fiction in primetime, and ushered in (to the chagrin of some) a brand-new genre in the U.S. – reality TV. Though some contend that reality is a passing fad, indicators are stronger that it’s here to stay. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences even created a new Emmy award category (Outstanding Non-Fiction Programming – Reality) to formally recognize it. To survive, says Burnett, ‘reality programs need to have an inherently interesting concept with compelling, relatable characters in situations with dramatic story arcs.’

As a producer, Burnett also triumphs financially. He successfully negotiated for a cut of the advertising dollars generated by Survivor, and did the same with Eco-Challenge and Combat Missions (both on USA Networks). Nobody would dare vote him off the island. SZ

Sorious Samura

In 1999, filmmaker Sorious Samura shocked the world with graphic images of atrocities being committed in Sierra Leone. His film, Cry Freetown, sparked controversy over how much reality should be shown on television. More importantly, it turned the eyes of the world onto a civil war that had dropped below the radar. The international recognition Samura received paved the way for his latest work, Exodus from Africa, which turns the camera on the men and women who risk their lives to flee Africa.

One need only witness how the global community responded to the genocide in Rwanda to recognize that Africa is grossly misunderstood and frequently marginalized. Motivated by the dearth of African stories being told, Samura continues to challenge broadcasters to support African filmmakers. He believes that international press attention can bring significant change to Africa, but the nature of that attention is also important. ‘The only way the West can understand and treat us seriously is to hear the African story firsthand from the African perspective,’ said Samura. ‘Why not take the risk if that can help turn things around for our continent?’ KB

Iikka Vehkalahti

In March 2000, Iikka Vehkalahti had the idea to develop a series of documentaries about the impact of AIDS on the people of southern Africa. By the end of 2001, that idea blossomed and took shape in the form of the Steps for the Future project. The result was 39 films ready for broadcast internationally on December 1, World AIDS Day.

Vehkalahti – journalist, doc-maker and commissioning editor for Finnish pubcaster YLE – enlisted the talents of his many contacts, including producer Don Edkins of Cape Town, South Africa’s Day Zero Film & Video, to make the project happen. Industry heavyweights also collaborated with African filmmakers on the films. Broadcasters that have signed on include SBS, CBC, ARTE and the BBC. Income from the sale of the films will go back to support local African filmmakers.

The Steps project is the largest international coproduction undertaken in southern Africa and will not only raise awareness about AIDS/HIV, but will foster a largely untapped crew of up-and-coming documentary filmmakers. KV

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.