Time to face reality: 'Survivor' mastermind Mark Burnett's empire is troubled
Thursday, February 17, 2005
MARK BURNETT may not be fiddling while his empire burns, but he might just be rosining the bow while things get a bit smoky.
On Monday, Najai Turpin, one of the contestants on Burnett's upcoming boxing reality series "The Contender," shot and killed himself. The show was produced last year, so Turpin's death won't affect the planned March 7 debut on NBC. But the apparent suicide has become the latest (and worst) piece of bad news in a season full of it for Burnett.
"Survivor: Vanuatu" was the dullest season to date of Burnett's flagship series. Ratings for the second installment of "The Apprentice" fell drastically from the first, and the third-season contestants seem grossly incompetent.
And that's just the stuff he's actually gotten on the air. Back in the fall, the WB pulled the plug on "Commando Nanny," a horrific sitcom based on Burnett's young years in America, after a series of behind-the-scenes mishaps that suggest the show was taped in the old "Poltergeist" house. The WB also made an early kill of Burnett's "Global Frequency," a planned midseason drama about a team of freelance rescue experts.
Long before Turpin's death, "The Contender" was in trouble, with its premiere date and timeslot repeatedly changed (from November to January to March, and from Tuesdays to Wednesdays to Sundays) in attempts to get away both from the stench of Fox's failed rip-off "The Next Great Champ" and from the ratings juggernaut of "American Idol." If not for the clout Burnett holds at NBC, not to mention the presence of DreamWorks chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg as a fellow producer, "The Contender" could have followed the never-seen path of those WB projects.
The creative struggles of "Vanuatu" should be the least surprising, since it was already the ninth "Survivor" in five years. (The fall editions of the show have also been traditionally the worst, with the exception of the Rupert/Jonny Fairplay-driven "Pearl Islands" season.) But the specific things that made "Vanuatu" such a snooze represent a larger problem for the franchise.
The show's motto is still "Outwit, Outlast, Outplay" when it should be "The Triumph of the Mediocre." Season after season, the great athletes, the brilliant strategists and the colorful characters get targeted early as "threats" to the fortune of the weaker players. Show aptitude for any of the game's physical or mental nuances, and you'll be gone quickly -- or, in the case of Boston Rob on the "All-Stars" season, petulantly blamed for being better than the people you beat.
On "Vanuatu," the doughy, bland middle-aged guys quickly got together to eliminate all the young musclemen on their team, removing whatever personality the season might have had. Chris, the eventual champ, deserves some kudos for sticking around when he was the last man standing among a half-dozen women. But his win seemed more by default -- an increasingly common trend on the show -- since the jury members hated Twila more than him.
Tom Shelly, Burnett's right-hand man for all things "Survivor," argued recently that "the game is always evolving," and that this trend of the least interesting players ganging up on the entertaining ones would eventually go away, but it's been years since the best player has actually won. Shelly even admitted there's no way to discourage contestants from flying under the radar.
"Survivor: Palau," which debuts tonight at 8 on Ch. 2, at least has a promising twist, as the contestants are dumped on the island en masse with no instructions from Jeff Probst, no team assignments, no information whatsoever, and left isolated for several days like that. But once the game begins in earnest, Burnett and Shelly will be left at the mercy of the contestants. Anything can happen on "Survivor," but lately, it's been the same uninspiring thing.
When a "Survivor" season goes bad, Burnett's defense is that the contestants behaved differently on the island than they did in the casting room. With "The Apprentice," there should be less margin for error. At the very least, it should be easy to tell who's actually a skilled businessperson and who's just there to get on TV.
But the second and third seasons have been staffed almost entirely by people who wouldn't know a solid business model from "America's Next Top Model." In last week's episode, the contestants were charged to create a commercial for a moisturizing body wash; the results were so horrible that, for the first time in the show's history, nobody won.
Obviously, you're never going to find 18 telegenic people who are brilliant and yet willing to give up their careers, since anyone who's truly great at business doesn't need to go on this show. Burnett and Donald Trump have all but given up the pretense that the winner gets to run the occasional meeting, let alone one of Trump's companies, but if we don't even believe that these are capable businesspeople, what's the point? Then it's just a bunch of delusional bozos yelling at each other, and we already have enough "Real World" clones. "The Bachelor" fell off a ratings cliff once it became blindingly obvious that none of the relationships would last; can a similar fall for "The Apprentice" be far behind?
Rather than trying to fix what's obviously broken with the original show, Burnett is already working to expand the format, with a spin-off starring Martha Stewart in the Trump role.
Stewart's first major post-prison appearance might get an initial tune-in for the curiosity factor, but it's hard to imagine the casting being any better here.
First, many of the contestants will be drawn from the pool of people applying for the Trump show, and if the motel makeover episode from a few weeks ago -- where one team painted over wood paneling and the other neglected to remove the plastic wrap from new mattresses before putting the sheets on -- is any indication, these folks aren't exactly skilled in Stewart's areas of expertise.
Second, whatever you think of Stewart's past, her convictions for obstruction of justice and lying to investigators about a stock sale, her daytime talk show, when has anyone ever referred to her as a good, kind, pleasant boss? Why on Earth would anyone except a complete fame junkie want to work for her?
For all its behind-the-scenes struggles, "The Contender" may be the best series Burnett has right now. The show puts 16 middleweight fighters -- some ranked, some unknown -- into a house to live and train together, with a fight at the end of each episode. Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard divvy up the Trump/Jeff Probst role.
Boxing remains the most dramatic, camera-friendly sport there is. There's a reason Stallone is still best remembered as Rocky Balboa, and why "Million Dollar Baby" is the Oscar front-runner this year. By taking the sport out of the corrupt hands of Don King and company and away from the pay-per-view venues that make it hard to attract new fans, Burnett has managed to wash away most of the stink of the sport without making the fights seem fake.
And whatever is going wrong with "Survivor" and "Apprentice," Burnett's gift for creating characters and storylines through editing hasn't completely failed him. The debut episode establishes several strong personalities, including unpopular pretty boy Ahmed Kaddour, feisty underdog Alfonso Gomez and steel-fisted family man Peter Manfredo Jr., and the climactic fight unfolds so perfectly that Burnett must have been pinching himself as the punches were being thrown.
If there are future editions, Burnett needs to ditch the cheesy challenge segments, which feel like bad "Survivor" leftovers. (In the premiere, the boxers race to carry a log up a hill to the Hollywood sign.)
But future editions seem unlikely. The constant scheduling changes suggest NBC has no confidence in the show at all. The final timeslot of Sundays at 8 will put it opposite "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Cold Case" and "The Simpsons," as if the network is just dumping "Contender" in a place where there aren't any expectations.
(The constant delays -- which were NBC's decision, not Burnett's -- may have contributed to the death of Turpin. The fighters remained under contract to the show until the first season finished airing, and while they were being paid and allowed to train, they couldn't fight. Turpin's trainer has claimed Turpin was terribly depressed over the forced inactivity.)
For all the problems Burnett is facing, not everything is bleak. The audience for "Vanuatu" wasn't much smaller than in previous seasons, in spite of all the fan grumbling. "Apprentice" isn't the ratings monster it was at the beginning, but it's still one of the more successful shows NBC has.
But the thing is, Burnett went through a streak from the summer of 2000 through last spring where he could seemingly do no wrong, and suddenly a lot of things are going wrong for him. It's time to start fixing existing problems before even thinking about another show. Reckless expansion without proper core maintenance has felled many an empire, and the past year has proved Burnett is no exception to the rules.
Alan Sepinwall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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