On a number of levels, the new series Expedition: Africa is quite the endeavor. First, it manages to both catapult back in time to 1871, when newspaper reporter Henry Morton Stanley went on his famous quest to find British explorer Dr. David Livingstone, and then brings that mission to the present day, complete with a slew of TV cameras… and Mark Burnett.
The eight-week History series which debuted on May 31 is also a first in other ways for the network. It’s History’s first project with adventure reality king Burnett and his production company, and it’s the network’s first big foray into exploration.
The genesis of the show stemmed from History’s SVP development and programming David McKillop, who wanted to do a historic exploration TV event. The History team approached Burnett, whom McKillop refers to as ‘the master of adventure television,’ slightly over a year ago. After discussing the concept, everyone was on board. Make no bones about it – Expedition is not Survivor: The Explorer Edition. Parameters had to be set in the early stages of development. ‘We had very frank conversations with Mark that nobody is being voted off, [and] this is not a competition,’ explains McKillop. ‘[This is about] four very seasoned explorers and adventurers. It’s a show that is challenging them to go where our forefathers went, so it’s not a game.’
Mark Burnett Productions’ executive producer Maria Baltazzi likens the experience of creating Expedition: Africa more to that of an earlier Mark Burnett Productions series, Eco-Challenge, than Survivor. ‘You were in constant motion [with] Eco-Challenge [but] it’s a much smaller window of time. The average Eco-Challenge was done in maybe 12 days. We were out there for 30 days.’
Survivor meanwhile, is a stationary endeavor. ‘With Survivor you’re creating your own little city for the amount of time you’re creating that series,’ she says. Still, there were resemblances between the new series and the Survivor franchise, in terms of the sizable teams it took to create each show. ‘When it was all said and done, including camera teams, producers, all of the production people, drivers, cooks – we were essentially a moving circus. There were 120 of us,’ she says.
Not all of the hurdles were logistical. From a creative standpoint, the plan was to marry three storylines into one show. The ‘A’ story of Expedition Africa captures days in the lives of four modern-day elite explorers on a historical journey, says Baltazzi, while the ‘B’ level deals with imparting useful information, like when cast member Benedict Allen describes and illustrates how to make a fire under soggy conditions. The final ‘C’ storyline deals with the actual history of Stanley and Livingstone.
The multiple storylines posed casting challenges, as the four-person cast had to be able to carry all three plot tracks themselves. ‘It was actually a fairly tall order,’ recalls Baltazzi. ‘A lot of the time you’re just looking for one person to present a show where I was looking for four.
‘You wanted four distinct personalities but you also wanted four distinct skill sets,’ she says. ‘We needed skill sets that were complementary to making a good expedition team and they also had to be able to verbally impart information.’
Her extensive search for the expedition team led to the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and she eventually gathered together an experienced team. The four selected explorers include former war correspondent Kevin Sites; aforementioned explorer, TV host, and motivational speaker Allen; National Geographic Channel correspondent Mireya Mayor; and geophysicist, adventurer and expedition leader Pasquale Scaturro.
Even before shooting began, the production team had their work cut out for them in obtaining permits for filming. Baltazzi says that the team started months in advance, as every area the explorers would journey through, every village, required up to five permits. Because they were doing a historical expedition, the government’s antiquities department required a permit, and the country, region, district and village all required permission to film.
‘We enlisted people from Tanzania and Kenya who acted as our liaisons that basically endorsed that we had good intentions,’ Baltazzi says. ‘We tried to be very respectful, going through the proper channels and sitting, having tea and asking them about the cows and their family.’
Once the team was assembled, it was off to Africa. But journeying from the island of Zanzibar to the small village of Ujiji in Tanzania, the production crew encountered more challenges. As they went further west, they were moving into less populated areas, and therefore fewer infrastructures. Plus, they were getting closer to the rainy season. ‘The roads were progressively not visible, bumpier and more remote,’ she recalls. ‘If there was one good storm it would’ve wiped us out.’
In the Sagara Mountains, they were hit with a sizeable rain, which can be seen on the series’ fourth episode. Trips to replenish supplies for the production crew that would’ve ordinarily taken two-and-a-half hours in total stretched out to five hours in one direction. ‘We had five vehicles that got stuck, so not only did it take longer to come around and resupply production, part of our transportation fleet was taken out,’ she says. Weather aside, the production company was still able to deliver the first episode of Expedition to History a year to the day after Mark Burnett Productions first presented to the network on February 26. After that, episodes were turned in every week.
The hard work, in the end, was worth it, with Expedition: Africa premiering with 1.3 million viewers, which grew to 3.8 million across the week. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
‘If the right pieces come together at the right time, you have a shot at a winner,’ sums up McKillop.