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Mark Burnett Saving the world one reality show at a time.
« on: April 14, 2004, 12:51:38 PM »
Mark Burnett
Saving the world one reality show at a time.
By Bryan Curtis



The Apprentice, which ends its run on NBC Thursday, is a celebration of
one of America's savviest
tycoons. His name is Mark Burnett. Donald Trump plays the show's
playboy, but it's Burnett, the
executive producer and reality-TV mogul, who's the real icon. Burnett
emigrated from London at 22
and has assumed the role of Hollywood's reigning Brit. He styles
himself as the latest in a long
line of his country's gentleman adventurers—the Allan Quatermain of
network television. Burnett
sees reality TV not as a vehicle for sleaze and humiliation—à la Joe
Millionaire or American
Idol—but as something noble and heroic. He thinks he can save the world
one reality show at a
time.

The sun never sets on Burnett's TV empire. Survivor, which debuted in
2000, still draws boffo
ratings for CBS. The Apprentice finale this week will pull down even
bigger numbers for NBC (and
the reruns on CNBC). The Restaurant, Burnett's series about the
Manhattan dining scene, begins a
second glorious season this month. All three shows went "straight to
series," which means they
skipped the pilot stage and snagged multiepisode commitments from the
networks—a deal reserved for
top producers. Burnett claims Survivor draws $425,000 for a 30-second
ad spot, the highest rate in
series television.

Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley might have been satisfied with this
much success. But Burnett
has greater ambitions: He wants to take his place beside the British
adventure gods of yore. In
photographs, he's lean and tan, posing in his safari suit in front of
some exotic forestscape. His
memoir, Dare To Succeed (2001), is dotted with quotes from Sir Edmund
Hillary and other explorers.
When the contestants on the debut season of Survivor had to perform a
torturous stunt—an obstacle
course, say, or a long swim—Burnett would often roll up his sleeves and
first perform the stunt
himself. With a straight face, he calls this "method producing."

Burnett's biography oozes more machismo. He fought in the Falkland
Islands War as a member of
Britain's elite Army Parachute Regiment. After moving to America, he
led teams of amateur
adventurers on exploits straight out of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Burnett says he once brokered a
truce with spear-wielding pygmies in Madagascar; on another quest, he
kayaked among six-foot
swells as sharks swirled below. "I heard my name associated with the
Peter Pan syndrome more than
once," he writes in Dare To Succeed. "But really, what's so wrong with
Peter Pan? Peter Pan flies.
He is a metaphor for dreams and faith."

His reality shows have taken on the contours of his personality: They
celebrate ambition and pluck
and have a touch of the Darwinian ethos of the British Empire. Survivor
deposits castaways in
remote wastelands and makes them hustle for food and shelter. The
contestants on The Apprentice
vie to become Donald Trump's new flunky. In Burnett's first series,
Eco-Challenge, which aired on
cable, he recreated the glory of the legendary transcontinental races,
with contestants hiking for
miles and then, say, hopping aboard a camel for the next leg.

Like all good colonialists, Burnett has a bit of a messianic streak. He
believes reality TV can
touch people's lives, which may put him at odds with his fellow
producers. Last month, he
christened a new series, Recovery, which follows an ex-CIA operative as
he tries to recover
abducted children. Burnett sees his show's übercop as a plausible
alternative to the feds:
"They're tied up with terrorism and war right now," he told Variety,
"and there's only so much
they can do." (The Boston Globe reports that groups working on behalf
of missing children are
livid about the show's veil of secrecy.)

More Burnett do-gooding is on the way. In June, Fox will unveil The
Casino, a show about
entrepreneurs who bought the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas and want
to restore its Rat Pack
vibe. The Contender, Burnett's collaboration with Sly Stallone, aims to
flush the sleaze out of
boxing. Burnett to Variety: "Rocky is the story of America. It's the
heart and soul of this
country. We're going to reinvent boxing." Reinvention, restoration,
recovery. Burnett disdains the
term "reality show," as if it were too small to contain his ambitions.

Only once has Burnett's vision exceeded his grasp. In 2000, he pitched
a show to the networks
called Destination: Mir. He declared that in the lieu of prize money, a
winning contestant would
be blasted into space for a holiday aboard the Russian station. "I
can't think of any journey more
glorious or daring," he wrote. "This was the ultimate adventure." It
was also a rotten idea. The
Russians scuttled the Mir station, and the world took a dim view of
space tourism, so the show
never made it to air.

Some might think Burnett is a bit dreamy. But in today's reality
TV-world, his brand of dreaminess
is in short supply. Since Survivor's debut, the genre has become a
reliable source of humiliation:
professional (American Idol), sexual (Joe Millionaire), even vertical
(The Littlest Groom, a show
about a dwarf bachelor). Even if Burnett's shows can feel
unadventurous—Survivor often seems like
a tropical ropes course; The Apprentice contestants have swashbuckled
their way through Planet
Hollywood—they have a purity of spirit that his competitors can't
match. Amidst the didgeridoo
music and faux-dramatic lighting, you think, "The guy really believes
this stuff."

But Burnett's greatest public service may be deflating Donald Trump.
The Donald is basking in the
glow of The Apprentice, weeding out young associates with his "You're
fired!" catchphrase. But to
Burnett, Trump is merely the latest interchangeable reality star—like
Richard Hatch, Elisabeth
Hasselbeck, and Rocco DiSpirito before him. (Trump went looking for a
cog in his empire and became
a cog in someone else's.) Burnett will soon leave the boardroom for
more glorious adventures. "I
needed to be in the bush," he once wrote, sounding very much the
Victorian adventurer. "There I
find solitude and beauty and purity and focus. That's where my heart
lies."


 

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