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TV's real survivor strikes again
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001
A few days after the Russian government guided its space station Mir into retirement, Mark Burnett is in a Los Angeles parking garage, a cell phone plastered to his ear.
But the superstar TV producer and creator of Survivor -- who once thought he could plant the winner of his dream project, a $50-million "reality TV" show, on Mir -- won't even consider that he might have a tough time completing Destination: Space.
"I'm looking into options on the International Space Station or an orbital trip," he says. "I don't want to mislead people into thinking I'm doing it, because I haven't (worked it all out). But don't count Mark Burnett out yet."
That spirit has marked this tenacious ex-paratrooper's ascent from used clothing entrepreneur to most powerful TV producer in Hollywood.
It's what allowed him to land in Los Angeles with little in his pocket nearly 20 years ago, building up a used-clothing business before selling MTV on a show about the emerging sport of adventure racing -- 1995's Eco-Challenge.
And it's what allowed him to turn the skills developed honing Eco-Challenge into a show that puts average citizens through similarly punishing physical tests -- creating the most-watched summer series ever, Survivor.
This week, viewers can watch Burnett return to his roots, producing his first Eco-Challenge after Survivor turned him into the man who revolutionized network TV.
"I just love hardcore adventure," says Burnett, 40, who competed in the world's toughest adventure races before designing Eco-Challenge and called on survival training learned in a British parachute regiment to help develop Survivor. "You discover a little more about yourself and your soul than you would looking into your laptop in an office."
Eco-Challenge pits 76 teams from 26 countries across a 320-mile course in Borneo. Experienced racers and first timers faced a daunting event that included rowing, mountain biking, jungle hiking, rapelling, whitewater rapids swimming and more.
As with Survivor, Burnett conducted Eco-Challenge well in advance of tonight's airdate, editing footage of the 12-day race down to compelling chunks of drama and emotion.
"I always showcase expert (athletes) at the front, contrasted with rookies at the back and how both sets of people have their own needs, goals and aspirations," says Burnett. That explains the show's focus on teams that couldn't possibly win, such as Team Playboy X-treme -- a group of three former centerfold models and one ex-Marine which never finished the race.
"It's the monotony that makes you want to quit," he says, noting the course requires three days of boat paddling, up to 30 hours of biking and 40 miles of swimming. "That's why the whitewater swimming and rappeling is important -- in the middle of it you've got to give (contestants) something exhilarating -- a frightening experience for the soul."
This year, the event moves from Discovery Channel to the former home of the WWF, USA Network -- the reason for the Playboy team's presence.
Those who have sampled Burnett's addictive Survivor series know the formula: Reasonably attractive non-actors placed in stressful, exotic locations equal maximum drama and ratings.
In tapes of the show provided to reviewers, participants are shown enduring worm-like leeches (some in unmentionable places), excruciating blisters, cracked ribs and unexplained sicknesses.
"Imagine being in a telephone booth with three close friends," says participant Ian Adamson, 35, a former Eco-Challenge winner who competed on one of the race's favored groups, Team Salomon Eco-Internet. "You eat in there, sleep in there, and you're always there. At least I got to do it with people I like."
Burnett admits one flaw in his show already: focusing too much on American teams.
But don't bother debating the ethics of such "reality TV" shows with the gregarious and quick-witted producer. With the ease born of a thousand interviews, Burnett shrugs off charges he's capitalizing on hapless citizens.
"I know it sounds strange, but that's what they signed up for . . . and I've got to deliver the promise," says the producer. "If I don't, it would be like being told you were climbing Mount Everest and then finding out it's a smaller mountain."
Particularly with Eco-Challenge, says Burnett, participants would come after him if the challenge wasn't tough enough -- or dangerous enough.
"I don't have any moral problem. . . . It's like climbing Mount Everest; if you sign up, you might die," he says. "What I don't want to hear is somebody signing up for the world's toughest expedition race and whining because they broke their leg. That's like saying you want a real tough rodeo riding course, you fall off the horse and break your back and start whining. Don't sign up."
That hard-edged attitude has won Burnett a reputation as an uncompromising producer -- who once said his Survivor cameramen better not stop filming, even during accidents like contestant Michael Skupin's accidental tumble into a campfire.
"That (statement) was taken out of context," he insists. "If the cameraman had been the only one there, of course he would have helped Michael. But there were 10 people standing around. So why on earth would he feel the need to drop the camera?"
But he is diplomatic when asked if all this reality is just a hedge against a possible strike by Hollywood actors and writers this summer. In the works: for USA, Combat Missions (teams of ex-military vets carry out fake "missions" in competition), two future installments of Survivor for CBS and keeping an eye on Destination: Space.
"Too many of my neighbors and close friends are in those unions and have mortgages to pay . . . and I already have more than enough to worry about," he says, estimating that he's employing about 800 people among the crews for Survivor, Eco-Challenge and Combat Missions. "Strike or no strike, I'm going to be doing just fine."
AT A GLANCE: Eco-Challenge: Borneo airs at 8 tonight through Wednesday on the USA Network. Grade: A
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