Producer Burnett ruled reality TV

The Baltimore Sun

Here's a good example of Hollywood power. Just as we were getting ready to chat with reality TV super-producer Mark Burnett about the ratings woes for recent efforts such as Pirate Master and On the Lot, the phone rang with an unexpected call.

It was Ben Silverman, the newly tapped co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, who wanted to make sure we knew that he thinks Burnett is a "phenomenal" producer.

In fact, Silverman added, he's even made it a priority to revive Burnett's The Apprentice, the once-phenomenal Donald Trump show that, as recently as last month, looked destined to bite the dust at NBC.

Don't you wish your friends had your back like this?

That Burnett is still a major force cannot be denied. Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, his goofy Fox game show with Jeff Foxworthy, was one of the very few successful new series introduced last season and has already spawned multiple overseas incarnations. Burnett's minions are toiling away on production for the 15th edition of his signature Survivor franchise, which will bow this fall with claims to be the first American TV series shot entirely in China. Ratings for this month's MTV Movie Awards, which he produced, climbed 12 percent in total viewers (to 3.6 million, according to Nielsen Media Research), and Burnett said he'll "probably" do the awards telecast again next year.

Even detractors give Burnett props for production values that have made his shows the gold standard of network TV reality. "I've never delivered anything that doesn't look good; that's important," he said last week.

Still, the past few weeks have brought grim tidings, notwithstanding the fact that summer, when networks generally refrain from airing original episodes of their most popular scripted shows, is often Burnett's time to shine.

On the Lot, a heavily publicized contest for aspiring filmmakers that Burnett produced in collaboration with Steven Spielberg, yielded such anemic ratings that Fox scaled back the twice-weekly airings. Viewers have likewise shunned CBS's Pirate Master, a kitschy adventure based on a fictional pirate tale in which nonactors (i.e., allegedly ordinary folk) play the roles. And although Burnett denies it, a source close to the situation says Rock Star, a talent search that in Season 2 last summer brought erstwhile Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee and his colorful pals to prime time, almost certainly won't return to CBS. It thus joins Burnett's previous big-ticket network flops Casino and The Contender.

A cocky former British paratrooper, Burnett is a talented, energetic and extraordinarily shrewd salesman for both himself and his shows. But he's trying to take a more philosophical view in these chastening times.

"Nobody is 100 percent on success," he said. "If you look at my success rate, it's probably higher than most." Then he went back to reeling off the many high points hit this year by 5th Grader and Survivor.

Producers rise and producers fall. That's the nature of the TV business. But partly because he's played such a central role in popularizing the circus that is unscripted entertainment, Burnett and the vicissitudes of his career are of more than passing interest. Do his current difficulties signal the beginning of the end for the broadcast reality craze that he nearly single-handedly launched seven summers ago with the first Survivor? Or is there something about Burnett's productions that viewers are beginning to turn away from? If something is toppling, is it the genre or the career?

Mike Darnell, who has overseen Fox's reality offerings for years, insists that the genre is just as popular as ever -- after all, Fox's American Idol was once again the No. 1 show of last season. Furthermore, all producers have winning and losing streaks, Darnell says. He adds, though, that hits are harder to come by.

"Even I can't keep track of how many reality shows there are these days," said Darnell, whose experience includes On the Lot as well as such classic unscripted gems as Celebrity Boxing and When Animals Attack. "The world has become extraordinarily competitive in the last three years."

True enough. But it's also evident that lately Burnett has trained his considerable talents on some dubious projects. At his best, with series such as Eco-Challenge and Survivor, Burnett combined two viewer needs into one appealing package: the thirst for exotic, escapist adventure, and the desire to get ahead in the duller workaday world. It was like someone made a TV show by marrying Outside magazine with Fortune magazine.

Other Burnett endeavors aren't as inspired.

On the Lot provides a good example. Given the pedigree involved, Fox hoped the show would do for moviemaking what Idol did for pop music. But the poor ratings validated the qualms of some rival executives, who felt the conceit was too close to Project Greenlight, the series about competing young filmmakers that aired on HBO and later Bravo.

"It's a narrow concept," Darnell said of On the Lot. "It's a little bit 'inside.' ... It's about the making of movies, [which is] maybe not as interesting to people."

Burnett admitted, "The show hasn't delivered on the ratings we'd hoped." But he points out that reality shows can usually survive on far lower ratings than scripted series, simply because they cost less to make. "An expensive reality show costs half what a cheap scripted show costs," he said.

Indeed, it's characteristic of Burnett -- and perhaps a key component of his success -- that in discussing his recent woes, he'll cop to nothing more than a momentary blip in his career ascendancy, a brief lull before the roller coaster resumes its upward trek.

"I just try to do things that I think are fun," Burnett said.

Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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