The man behind `Survivor’

Feb 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

You only have to talk to Mark Burnett for a few minutes to suspect that Rob Sorcher, executive vice president and general manager for USA Network, may be right:
“Mark Burnett is an evangelist for his franchises in the best sense of the word. He has a unique ability to motivate everyone at the network who works on his projects with his genuine, infectious enthusiasm,” Mr. Sorcher said.
It was Mr. Burnett who persuaded CBS that reality was sellable, despite a chorus of naysayers. The result is, of course, “Survivor,” a show that pulled 51 million viewers in its first season, and some say it rejuvenated CBS.
Mr. Burnett succeeds in saying, “I told you so,” without sounding arrogant: “You have no idea the number of people far more experienced than I who told me that I needed to choose whether I was making a drama or an adventure or a game show. That I couldn’t have a combination-that it really wouldn’t work.
“I second-guessed myself, but I couldn’t be comfortable with what they were telling me. So I did what I thought was right. The lesson I learned working on `Survivor’ was to trust my gut,” he said.
And the lesson Mr. Burnett thinks he taught others is equally simple.
“What I totally proved was that regardless of what you want to call it, good storytelling with a decent pace and a compelling idea executed well will always work.”
Mr. Burnett has always been a risk taker. Born in London, he joined the British Army Paratroop Regiment at age 18 and saw action in Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands. He moved to Los Angeles in 1982 with $500 in his pocket. Desperate for a job, he became a nanny, supplementing his income by selling used clothing on Venice Beach, Calif. He got the idea for Eco-Challenge, his first success story and the name of his company, after reading about an adventure race in New Zealand, then giving it a try himself.
In 1994, with absolutely no TV experience whatsoever, he approached MTV with the idea of a televised adventure race and persuaded the network to let him produce it. The show was a hit-and the first of seven similar events that have aired annually on MTV, ESPN, the Discovery Channel and, most recently, USA. Mr. Burnett received an Emmy Award for “Eco-Challenge, Morocco.”
More and more, Mr. Burnett, 40, says his own personal challenges aren’t in the outback but in the boardroom. “It used to be that I felt that I was being paid for having adventures. Now it’s much more serious. Being a reality show placed against `Friends’ and having the responsibility of delivering results for CBS on my shoulders is a huge thing. Quite frankly, it has all become almost unbelievable. To have NBC changing the format of `Friends’ because of a reality show on another network and then to beat them is completely bizarre, and the impact of that isn’t lost on me.”
Next, Mr. Burnett, who is married and has two children, is interested in exploring interactive TV. With 100 hours shot for every hour that makes it to air, he has outtakes that lend themselves to convergence. And he sees himself forming a nonfiction studio to take on more and bigger projects.
But he doesn’t believe, despite current enthusiasm, that reality will ever dominate television. “Reality isn’t going to take over,” he said, “just find its own niche alongside comedy and drama and game shows.”
Mark Burnett
Age: 40
Personal achievements: Member of the British Army Paratroop Regiment with active service medals in both the Northern Ireland and Falkland Islands conflicts. Open water certified scuba diver, Level A certified skydiver, has completed a white-water guide course and is Advanced Wilderness First Aid certified.
Television productions: “Eco-Challenge,” “Survivor.”
Projects in the works: “Combat Missions,” a competition that features Special Forces veterans, for USA Network.