When the U.S. version of London-based Castaway Television’s Survivor debuted on CBS in the summer of 2000, Mark Burnett – the format’s multitasking exec producer – hoped it would develop a cult following, trigger watercooler buzz and gradually build an audience.
‘What I thought was, it may be a little like Twin Peaks – hopefully with more longevity.’ What he didn’t expect was for it to become both a full-fledged phenomenon and a harbinger of things to come on the TV landscape. The upshot of its success and that of the even longer running – but slightly less high-profile – Eco-Challenge (which he also exec-produced) is that Burnett has become a player to be reckoned with. For the past 10 years, from the helm of his Santa Monica, U.S.-based prodco Mark Burnett Productions, Burnett has blazed reality trails, starting with Eco-Challenge Utah, which aired in 1995.
Burnett, 43, continues to be hands-on with both formats. He also has two scripted series in the works for Burbank, U.S.-based WB Network: a drama pilot called Global Frequency, based on a DC Comic, and a comedy entitled Commando Nanny (w/t), based loosely on Burnett’s stint as a nanny (his first L.A. gig, on the heels of duty in the British Parachute Regiment). He’s also exec producer on Eden, a scripted one-hour limited series for NBC’s 2004-05 season. Originally developed as a feature, it’s about a diverse bunch of cruise mates, shipwrecked on a remote island. Burnett is in talks with corporate sponsors for tie-in deals with the show.
These projects don’t represent a permanent move away from reality, however. In summer 2003, he produced the six-part series The Restaurant and Boarding House: North Shore. Currently in production are the ninth edition of Survivor and a sequel to The Restaurant. In pre-production is another ‘reality drama’ called The Casino, a 13 X 1-hour series that will follow two businessmen as they reopen the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
One could be forgiven for assuming that Burnett has hired an army of underlings to handle tasks such as casting, but that’s not the case. He has a staff that he has worked with from the first season of Survivor and claims to still be ‘very, very involved’ in the casting of ‘every single show.’ Says Burnett, ‘People say they’re busy, [but] it’s not organizing their time. It can all be done with great staff.’
His winning formula has also remained unchanged: ‘I’ve basically confirmed that my idea in the beginning was correct,’ he says, ‘which is, simply, find 16 people who want the adventure – not who want to be on TV – and who are all A-type leaders used to being in charge of their own peer groups. Here, they’re playing at a higher level and they can’t all be in charge. That creates great drama.’
That formula is currently being put to the test in The Apprentice, a 15-episode series hosted by real estate tycoon Donald Trump. The show debuted last month on NBC and scored the highest 18 to 49 rating for any new TV series in over a year. The premise reads like Survivor without Jeff Probst or the isolation: 16 men and women are pitted against one another in various tests of their entrepreneurial acumen. ‘The candidates are proving themselves by doing things as diverse as [creating] ad campaigns at Madison Avenue agencies like in the movie What Women Want, and producing a rock concert,’ states Burnett. ‘It’s not a bunch of people in an office looking at spreadsheets.’ Each week, someone is summarily fired, and the last candidate is offered a US$250k job with Trump.
In terms of budget, Burnett will only say, ‘All my shows are written for approximately the same range,’ which for Survivor has been estimated at roughly $1 million per episode. Though he was able to negotiate for a percentage of ad dollars in Survivor and Eco-Challenge, this is not a standard condition. Burnett does, however, volunteer, ‘I get paid really well.’
Celebrity-focused shows like The Apprentice starring The Donald, and comedy hybrids like the Paris Hilton vehicle The Simple Life are currently basking in the network spotlight, with ratings to confirm their status as trend du jour. As to what’s next on reality programming wish lists, Burnett says, ‘I don’t really think of it like that; I honestly simply just try and have a decent premise with great casting.’