In Depth

Burnett’s Slate Comes Into Focus

‘Survivor’ Goes HD, Diddy Gets a Deal

“Survivor” creator Mark Burnett, who has already teamed with everyone from Steven Spielberg to Donald Trump, is now in business with Sean “Diddy” Combs.

The reality mogul is working with the hip-hop impresario to launch the tentatively titled “Starmaker,” a music competition series for MTV designed to find both a male and a female solo superstar, each of whom will be signed to a deal with Mr. Combs’ Bad Boy label.

Survivor: Gabon is Shooting in HD

It’s one of more than a dozen projects—including a reality show about bullies and a TV take on the “Rock Band” video game—that Mr. Burnett has in various stages of productions.

Mr. Burnett’s packed slate comes as his iconic CBS series “Survivor” is about to mark another milestone with next week’s transition to HD. It’s the first CBS reality show to shoot in high definition, and the only non-studio-based reality series on a broadcast network to use the format.

“For people who have HD sets, there’s no doubt the viewing experience will be great,” Mr. Burnett told TelevisionWeek. “It adds so much to the beauty of the show.”

Of course, the first HD season of “Survivor” filmed several months ago, making it somewhat old news for the perpetually forward-thinking Mr. Burnett. During a brief interview, the reality guru steered the conversation to the slew of other projects his company is working on.

“I think we have 10 series in various stages of posting and prepping, as well as five or six pilots,” he said.

The collaboration with Mr. Combs has been quietly casting for several weeks now, with Mr. Combs talking up the show via a video entry on his Diddy.com blog.

“He’s doing his thing, I’m doing my thing, and we got together to do big things,” Mr. Combs said, referring to Mr. Burnett. “I made the band, but this show is for the solo artists.”

Unlike Mr. Combs’ successful MTV series “Making the Band,” which focuses on hip-hop artists, “Starmaker” will feature singers from all genres. The show has clear similarities to “American Idol,” but Mr. Combs said it won’t be a clone of other series. “When you see the show finished, you’ll see the originality we inject,” he said.

Mr. Combs has become a key producer for MTV Networks. He’s also behind “Making the Band” and “Run’s House” for MTV and the VH1 series “I Want to Work for Diddy.”

Mr. Burnett didn’t divulge many details of his project with Mr. Combs, except to call it a “hybrid reality-talent competition.”

The producer had a bit more to say about a pilot he’s shooting for MTV that is tentatively dubbed “Bully Breakdown.” The potential series will help people who’ve been victimized by bullies to get a modicum of justice by seeing their tormentors square off against mixed martial arts fighters.

“We interview the victims and see how they’ve been abused,” Mr. Burnett said. “Then the bullies get the chance to step in the ring with a real MMA athlete. And the victims are there to watch it all.”

Mr. Burnett also confirmed reports that he’s developing a TV take on MTV’s successful videogame “Rock Band,” but said that for now, the project is only at the pilot stage.

“Here’s a chance for people who are not actual musicians to get the chance to live as a rock star,” said Mr. Burnett, who produced the CBS cult hit “Rock Star” for two seasons.

Rather than a multiweek competition such as “Idol” or “Starmaker,” the “Rock Band” episodes will be self-contained, with a winning group crowned at the end of each hour. Contestants will play “Rock Band” in front of a cheering crowd.

“The energy of the audience takes it to a higher level,” Mr. Burnett said.

Mr. Burnett also is working on another edition of “Celebrity Apprentice” for NBC, the prime-time and syndicated versions of “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” (with Zoo Productions) and the fourth season of Martha Stewart’s syndicated talk show. And CBS already has greenlit an 18th cycle of “Survivor,” most likely for next spring.

Then there’s the about-to-launch HD season of “Survivor.” Mr. Burnett said shifting to the format was “a joint decision between myself and CBS,” since Mr. Burnett and the network are production partners on the show.

“It was totally about cost,” Mr. Burnett said. “This year, we were able to make some deals and we figured out how to make it cost-effective.”

Neither CBS nor Mr. Burnett would discuss just how much HD adds to the production budget of “Survivor,” though HD cameras can cost well over $100,000 each—and shows such as “Survivor” use numerous cameras in order to keep track of so many contestants.

Sony has come on board as an HD production partner for “Survivor,” striking a deal with CBS and Mark Burnett Productions that will help the producers defray the costs associated with HD.
CBS has been making the switch to HD a big selling point in its promotions for “Survivor” and while Mr. Burnett is upbeat about the transition, he’s not convinced it will be a major factor in the show’s success.

“This year I think one of the biggest tune-in factors will be that we’ve got such an unbelievable location,” he said, noting the show’s setting in the Eden-like African nation of Gabon.

Mr. Burnett and the production team will use the show’s setting this season for a twist in the
game.

“We have an interesting twist to Exile Island, which plays on the theme of the Garden of Eden,” Mr. Burnett said. “It’s all about temptation.”

While ratings for “Survivor” have, predictably, slipped in the past few years—it averaged 13.6 million viewers last spring, down 6% from 2007—the show remains a Nielsen powerhouse for CBS. It’s beaten back tough competition from shows such as “My Name Is Earl” and “Ugly Betty.” This fall, it will battle Fox game show “Hole in the Wall.”

How long can “Survivor” survive?

“We just take it year by year,” Mr. Burnett said. “We have an enormously loyal audience. Our job is to just keep pleasing them.”