Reality Check is a Deadline feature series covering the players, programs and trends in reality television.
Since Survivor first debuted on CBS in the summer of 2000, Mark Burnett has been and remains one of the leading impresarios of the Reality TV genre that he in many ways created Stateside. Sure Burnett’s had flame-outs like the short lived Stars Earn Stripes, but he’s also currently holding a deck that includes the still strong Survivor 28 seasons in and growing NBC’s The Voice and ABC’s entrepreneurial series Shark Tank. In a genre where longevity and legacy are still being created, Burnett reflects on the state and shifting fortunes of Reality TV, why American Idol has stumbled and how he literally anchors his shows to success.
DEADLINE: Let’s cut to the chase, Mark. What’s the state of unscripted TV in 2014?
MARK BURNETT: The state of unscripted TV is very good, as long as it’s good. That’s the only thing you have to worry about. I always try to think that if you’re given an hour or two of primetime American network TV, you better treat that as if someone’s just given you a $100 million movie to run. No difference, and there’s no free pass. If it’s great, and if it has an emotional connection, for whatever reason, to the viewers, it stays. Particularly, for me, I’m very, very fortunate that The Voice, and Survivor, and Shark Tank all have a clear emotional connection through the TV screen into peoples’ homes.
DEADLINE: Having said that, do you have a gut instinct method for running your shows?
BURNETT: You know me well enough to know I’m very into the quality. I’m very micro on the way it feels and that’s paid off for us, clearly. I mean, over the last 12 months, I think, five nights out of seven, we had winning shows.
DEADLINE: And in the case of Survivor this season, the CBS show beat American Idol among adults 18-49 for the first time in a common hour, and then went on to do it repeatedly as well as topping the Fox show in viewership.
BURNETT: Absolutely. It’s astounding how Idol was so far ahead, and Survivor just passed it early in the season and just kept going. It’s funny actually because a lot of people said to me, “Wow, should Idol be worried about The Voice this season?’, and I said, ‘Yeah, probably, but they should be more worried about Survivor.’ People laughed at me, and said, ‘Yeah, sure, that’s an old show.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’
DEADLINE: Why do you think your reality vet was able to get ahead of Idol and stay there?
BURNETT: I think it’s because we’ve kept the game sacrosanct. We’ve kept the foundational values of the game completely in place. It’s a fantastic game, and we can all see ourselves, at some point, as Robinson Crusoe, and Lord of the Flies, what would we do, and we’re watching it play out. The thing about Idol is I don’t think we know what it is anymore. It’s neither here nor there. I think that all needs to be fixed if they intend to go forward.
DEADLINE: Is the decline of Idol emblematic of favor shifting away from reality TV? Has it begun to run its course?
BURNETT: Look, reality TV isn’t going anywhere. Unscripted is now as valuable a foundation of television as sports, news, comedy and drama. They’re all foundational as is reality TV. But it has changed over the years and as producer you have to look at what’s working. I’ve looked at how certain shows have fallen off drastically when they continue with this trying to poke fun at a lifestyle or a type of people. In unscripted network TV, which my focus, obviously, you have to look at the rejection of humiliation. I think it’s a shift in the country. It’s not just TV. I think there’s still a place for darker, scripted TV. I mean, I don’t do that, but there’s a place for it, but it’s scripted, and it’s clearly fictional, and that’s OK. I think maybe why the rejection of dark, cynical, humiliation-driven unscripted is that these are real people, and there’s a responsibility for the network and the producers, of not capitalizing on humiliating people.
DEADLINE: That’s a major shift in many respects.
BURNETT: Yes but the one thing that’s not really a shift but a solidification of values is that network TV has to be a level above anything else available. It just has to be. There’s a certain standard, and it’s making the group of trusted show runners ever shrinking because the networks are not going to put up with anything less than excellence, they’re just not. So that’s just a fact. There’s a certain thing about certain shows that are not my shows, like The Biggest Loser, and The Bachelor franchise, and Dancing With The Stars, these are rock solid. The producers who make these shows understand the consequences if you don’t treat this like a big movie every time.
DEADLINE: How do you get to that level consistently?
BURNETT: It cannot be phoned in, it has to continue to be great, and my philosophy of when you find something that works, it creates an anchor. It’s an emotional anchor for people. In the days of letters, or still people get handwritten notes and letters, you know, which come from the same person, you recognize the handwriting, you recognize the stationery, there’s an anchoring feeling when you get a handwritten letter. It’s what’s written inside that’s fresh. So a successful franchise is creating anchoring moments, anchoring phrases, anchoring music, lensing, that makes you feel a certain way, and you recognize your favorite show. It’s just the interesting freshness each week within that anchoring, emotional connection, that’s important. That’s what works. When they tune in for Shark Tank, and Shark Tank’s become a destination on Fridays, they’re expecting to see Shark Tank. They’re not expecting that a bunch of producers and a network decide let’s completely change it. Only stupidity reigns when people take successful franchises and feel they’re going to completely change them for whatever reason.
DEADLINE: Along with Roma (Downey), you’ve made the leap into scripted with hugely successful The Bible, then Son Of God and a Bible sequel with A.D. and back on to the big screen with Ben-Hur with MGM and Paramount. There’s the space travel unscripted series with Richard Branson that NBC has picked up and the cooking series where viewers can taste the dishes for TNT. I almost hesitate to ask what else is going on with Mark Burnett but there’s always something.
BURNETT: Yes, we’re having a great time. We’ve had a ton of opportunities and just being very selective. On the unscripted TV side, there are a couple of big things coming where one deal’s been made and one’s being made. I can’t talk about it, but I’ve definitely got a couple of things, and deals I’ve made recently, as the unscripted world continues to move forward. The great thing is, there are new ideas every day, and that’s what’s exciting. It’s no different if you went back to biblical times, or you went back to totally hundreds of years, or thousands of years ago, storytelling was always at a premium.
This is the first of five Q&As with some of the heavyweights of Reality TV. Gordon Ramsay will be next Wednesday as the man with a mini empire on Fox reveals just how he keeps so many TV shows cooking simultaneously.