SCENE SETTER: For Mark Burnett, exotic settings are merely the means to compelling interaction.
Reality rests in the eye of the beholder.
And in the eyes of Mark Burnett, the ubiquitous producer who has spun reality programming into entertainment gold, "reality" is a sticker that falls short when describing his contributions to a genre now dominating much of television.
"'Reality' is a label some journalists created," Burnett says. "What I do is unscripted drama. 'Survivor' and 'The Apprentice' put people into situations that aren't real at all. They aren't actually marooned on an island, and they aren't actually applying for any jobs."
The reality kicks in when the competitors, representing a cross section of America, react to situations tossed in their paths. Cast as carefully as any drama or comedy on the air, Burnett's programs center on social interactions with heavy overtones of Joseph Campbell's philosophies on myths and heroes. Burnett honed those elements into the American version of "Survivor."
"CBS was the first network to do unscripted drama," Burnett says. "I felt confident in this format and turned (the original concept) from a gameshow to dramatic storytelling, where we built a world in which core values are the truth. The way you win is by getting rid of people in a way that they don't hate you, and in fact will reward you for getting rid of them by handing you a million dollars."
Interaction between diverse characters intrigued Burnett, whose first foray was "Eco-Challenge," in which five-person teams raced against each other and the elements across 500 miles of wilderness.
Inspired by the French-created Raid Gauloises adventure race in Costa Rica, the first "Eco-Challenge" was held in 1995 in the Utah desert and continued, in various locations, until 2002. It was aired by a variety of webs including MTV, ESPN and Discovery.
Burnett observed that the teams rose and fell on the basis of their social interaction more than their outdoor handiness.
"Mark hypothesized that if you put ordinary people in extraordinary situations, you will absolutely get interesting television, and he was right," says Kelly Kahl, CBS' exec VP of program planning and scheduling. "People being unguarded with unscripted emotions bubbling up to the surface, that was unique on TV at the time."
Kahl adds that Burnett was relatively unknown but came forward with unyielding confidence and bravado, pitching an experimental show few thought would last beyond a summer or two.
"Survivor" is based on a format developed by Planet 24, a U.K. TV production company owned by Charlie Parsons and Bob Geldof. It was first produced in Sweden by Strix in 1997 under the name "Expedition: Robinson."
When Parsons and Geldoff sold Planet 24 in 1999, they retained the rights to the program, which Burnett licensed to make the U.S. "Survivor" in 2000.
The idea that "Survivor" would spin the stodgy CBS around wasn't in anyone's wildest dreams.
"It was the first real sign that CBS could have a show that was cool, have some buzz and skew younger," Kahl says. "It opened our eyes that we could be more than just 'Murder, She Wrote' or 'Diagnosis Murder.' We could take chances as a network and be rewarded for it."
The idea of not only documenting people, but judging them at the end of each episode and booting them off, was novel at the time.
Before Burnett, the sparse field of American reality programming at the time came down to gamers "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or the documentary format used in MTV's groundbreaking "The Real World."
"Basically, he brought nearly everything to the table, changing the reality game by turning it 180 degrees," says Andy Dehnart, the creator of the genre's first tracking website, RealityBlurred.com. "He has put the entertainment into reality."
And that extends beyond just the drama aspect, Dehnart adds: "Give credit to 'The Real World' for the conventions of the genre, but (Burnett) made reality television look cinematic and beautiful."
"He raised the production levels of reality TV, which shows in all the most successful shows ... and we owe him for that."