As the second installment of reality mega-hit Survivor
is about to hit the airwaves, producer Mark Burnett has more on his mind than simple survival. He's taking steps toward building his own studio.
Burnett, who recently finalized a multimillion-dollar deal with CBS for third and fourth installments of the show, is looking to expand his empire beyond his current three production companies.
"I'm looking into forming a larger entity, like an Endemol," Burnett told BROADCASTING & CABLE late last week. "I feel that someone needs to make a great nonfiction, reality-based studio in Hollywood."
Burnett operates mini studios for each of his reality programs: Eco-Challenge-Lifestyles Inc., Survivor Entertainment Group and Combat Missions Inc.-the last for his forthcoming USA Network project involving special-forces veterans.
Burnett says he has had ongoing conversations with Endemol Entertainment President Jon De Mol, the Dutch producer who brought CBS its other summer reality series, Big Brother, last year. He and De Mol have talked about possibly joining forces on a U.S.-based studio, he says, but Burnett is also talking with a variety of other production companies and broadcast networks, including CBS.
"I think that my sense of what's good television seems to work, and that's a valuable asset," he says. "Whether I bring that to an overall deal with a studio, form my own studio or, in the biggest picture, start my own network or cable channel-they're all possibilities."
As for joining forces with CBS beyond just Survivor,
Burnett says, "There's no question my relationship with [CBS TV President} Les Moonves is stellar. I really, really respect him, and he really, really understands television-better than anybody I've ever dealt with in this business."
Burnett expects something to give within the next year, but right now he's too busy with Survivor
and the production plans for the third version. This week, he's sending scout crews to Asia, Africa and South America.
In terms of Survivor: The Australian Outback,
which debuts this weekend after the Super Bowl on CBS, Burnett is well aware of NBC's battle plans to hold the Thursday-night time slot. "Going up against Friends
takes the pressure off me, sort of," he says with a laugh. "I'm not making any predictions. Everything we do on Survivor
that helps CBS start to take back Thursday night is what they want from me. I don't know what the ratings will be, but I've made a great show, and I'm really proud of it."
The second installment of Survivor
features a younger group of contestants: The average age of the 16 contestants is 33, down from the 35 of Richard Hatch's group. Television critics have accused Burnett of going after "pretty faces" for Survivor: The Australian Outback-a charge he challenges.
"I think we are a bit smarter than just going for pretty faces, knowing that we have to carry 14 weeks of television," he says. "And it just so happened that the compelling characters happened to, in some cases, have pretty faces. But the first Survivor
worked pretty well, and it would take a silly man to start changing a formula that works."