Mark Burnett, executive producer

"I do prefer the term 'unscripted drama' because to me it's all about storytelling. I don't even know what 'reality' means."
January 1, 2011

With scads of projects on the go, including new seasons of the factual entertainment landmarks Survivor and The Apprentice, Mark Burnett continues to light the way ahead for reality programming, or as he prefers to call it, “unscripted drama.”

“I do prefer the term ‘unscripted drama’ because to me it’s all about storytelling,” he tells realscreen, chatting on his trusty cell phone in the midst of a suitably epic California rainstorm. “I don’t even really know what ‘reality’ means – it could mean sports or news.”

Perhaps a decade ago it did mean just that, but with the launching of Survivor on CBS in 2000, “reality” became both a cultural buzzword and a revolutionary mode of programming for broadcast and cable nets alike. And while, over the span of its first decade on broadcast TV in the U.S., reality television has been repeatedly tagged as a fad, Burnett and company Mark Burnett Productions have continually breathed new life into the genre, with other such staples as The Apprentice (heading into season 11 with another “Celebrity” edition), new hits such as the controversial Sarah Palin’s Alaska, and a healthy slate of upcoming efforts that ranges from ABC’s Expedition Impossible to OWN’s Your OWN Show.

Born in England in 1960, as a former parachutist in the British Army, Burnett is no stranger to risk-taking. Coming to America 28 years ago, he worked as a nanny and sold T-shirts on Venice Beach before moving into production. His first series, Eco-Challenge, ran on assorted cable nets including MTV, Discovery and USA Network and paved the way for another series that would marry his love of adventure with the unpredictability and drama inherent in unscripted programming.

Survivor, adapted from Charlie Parsons’ format Expedition Robinson, combined what Burnett calls “Joseph Campbell-esque storytelling” with a nail-biting competition element – a mix that ensured its status as “can’t miss” television. While some seasons have fared better than others in ratings, it remains a powerhouse for CBS, the standard by which reality competition is measured, and a continued source of challenge and sheer fun for Burnett and his team.

Beyond new seasons of Survivor and The Apprentice, the year ahead will bring The Voice, a collaboration between Burnett and Voice of Holland format creator John de Mol, to NBC, as well as Expedition Impossible to ABC. For cable, there will programs for OWN, another edition of the MTV Movie Awards and what he calls his “dream project,” a program for History he’s producing with wife Roma Downey that he says is ‘probably one of the biggest things I’ve ever done.” But regarding any speculation about a second season for the Palin show, Burnett’s response seems to echo reports that it won’t be back.

“I’ve not discussed it with Sarah or TLC,’ he maintains. “There are always people starting rumors out there but I’ve personally had no discussions about that.”

Is it a huge challenge to keep Survivor fresh?

My belief system regarding keeping it fresh is very simple – it reminds me of when I first emigrated to America 28 years ago. I’d receive letters from my mother and they’d always come on similar stationary, with the same handwriting and the same postmark from the town I grew up in. So there’d be an anchoring sense of familiarity and safety in that envelope. But what would be different was what was written inside. So that’s my philosophy for my shows – make freshening tweaks but never forget the anchoring moments that the audience lives for.

Sarah Palin’s Alaska was the top-rated premiere ever for TLC, yet it spawned great controversy upon airing. You’ve always maintained it wasn’t a “political” show.

The real driver for me was that here’s someone who’s in the public eye that viewers will be captivated by. Alaska is a state I really love and lends itself well to television storytelling and a vicarious experience for the viewers. So it was a no-brainer that Sarah Palin showing Alaska through her eyes and those of her family would be compelling television.

You’ve said in the past that you operate off your cell phone, don’t carry a briefcase and don’t spend much time in the office. Do you still work that way?

Yes… The reason I can is that I’m surrounded by an A-plus team of people, many of whom I’ve worked with from the beginning.

I learned a saying in Morocco during the making of Eco-Challenge from the Berber tribes who live in the high Atlas mountains. For their long, difficult journeys they say, “Choose your companions long before you choose the route.” It’s not the route or the difficulty of it that will get to you – it’s the other people. So it’s the same thing in production – try to choose the right teammates.

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