Screen Savors: The brains behind the brainchild

When it comes to reality TV, producer Mark Burnett is covering all the angles.

Mark Burnett (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mark Burnett
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What do the shows Survivor, The Apprentice, The Voice, The Restaurant, Martha, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Expedition Impossible have in common? They were all created and produced by Mark Burnett. In fact, they are just a fraction of the reality shows that the 51-year-old mega mogul has created in his meteoric career.
Nominated for 69 Emmy Awards, the winner of several prestigious media awards, inducted into the Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame, honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People in the World Today, Burnett has single-handedly changed the face of television.
Like the hero in most compelling success stories, Burnett came from humble beginnings. He was born in London to parents who were factory workers. At 17 he joined the British Army and became a section commander in the Parachute Regiment and served in the war in the Falklands.
In 1982 he left Britain and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in various capacities, such as a nanny, a bodyguard, an insurance agent and a T-shirt vendor.
The turning-point in his career came in 1991 when he read a newspaper article about a French adventure competition called the Raid Gauloises. With four other team mates, Burnett took part in the contest, calling their team American Pride. Inspired by the adventure, he saw a business opportunity in the competition and bought the rights to the format. Creating a similar race for the US, he developed the reality show Eco- Challenge, and his television career was off and running.
The show soon went international after its initial challenge in the Utah desert in 1995. In the two-week adventure race, each four-person team, comprised of a mix of men and women, raced 24 hours a day over a rugged 500-km course, involving such disciplines as trekking, whitewater canoeing, horseback and camelback riding, kayaking, scuba diving, mountaineering and mountain biking. In its run until 2002, the challenges took place in such locales as Australia, Morocco, Argentina, Borneo, New Zealand and Fiji.
During the course of the Eco- Challenge races, Burnett was intrigued by how the players interacted with each other under stress. Recognizing that the communication within groups was a stronger factor in an expedition’s success than technical or physical prowess, Burnett took on his next adventure venture, the widely acclaimed show Survivor. Here, a group of people are effectively dumped in the middle of nowhere and have to work individually or in teams to overcome the challenges they are faced with. The last man standing, so to speak, is proclaimed the winner of that grueling survival of the fittest.
In Burnett’s latest adventure challenge, Expedition Impossible, 13 three-person teams grapple with 10 stages of hurdles in Morocco as they race across deserts, over mountains and through rivers.
As a producer, Burnett seems to have unlimited scope when it comes to creating reality shows. Ranging from music and food to cowboys and weddings, he devises ways to spark the competitive spirit in any just about sphere.
And competing within the industry itself, he is giving American Idol a run for its money with his show The Voice, which seeks out the next great singing sensation.
And The Apprentice, hosted by the indomitable Donald Trump, has become so popular that since it originally premiered, it has been produced in more than 21 countries.
But not all his shows have been successes. He took at stab at a Martha Stewart, the Martha Stewart Apprentice, but it fell flat on its face. Which comes as no surprise. Creative though she may be, the woman has no charisma or stage presence, so that idea was a non-starter.
What has been very successful, though, is the quiz show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Here, well-educated adults are teamed up with a group of fifth-grade students, who try to hep them answer elementary-level questions in categories such as math, grammar, history and geography. Very few contestants have ever won the grand prize and when they give in, they have to admit to the camera, “I am not smarter than a 5th grader.”
One of Burnett’s upcoming projects is not a reality show but a scripted drama. Taking on the Bible, no less, Burnett will produce a 10-hour series that recounts some of the classic stories. Slated to air on the History Channel in 2013, in his hands The Bible may well take on epic proportions.