Mark Burnett's reality-TV survival tips

Remember them? The 16 participants in the first Survivor series back in 2000.
Reuters

Remember them? The 16 participants in the first Survivor series back in 2000.

Television producer Mark Burnett remembers the first time he got in trouble with CBS, the American network that has aired his reality show Survivor, for the past 15 years.

While overseeing filming during the first season in early 2000, Burnett excitedly showed members of the press some rough footage - he didn't realise CBS frowned upon early sneak peeks. Network executives yelled at him: "You can't do that!"

That is, until they saw the stunned reaction from reporters. Burnett remembers them staring at the movielike footage, which followed contestants living on a deserted island as they competed to win a US$1 million prize. It was unlike anything that had ever been on broadcast TV before. And it was then that Burnett realised he had something special.

"At that moment, I was just excited," Burnett says almost 15 years later. "Little did I realise it truly (would become) a game-changer."

"You don't need to be mean to create drama," says Mark Burnett.
Getty Images

"You don't need to be mean to create drama," says Mark Burnett.

Survivor premiered in the US on May 31, 2000 - as illustrated, the extreme success of the show officially led to an explosion in the reality TV genre as networks realised the potential gold mine of a programming that was cheaper to produce than scripted shows.

Even more amazingly, Survivor endures 15 years - and 30 seasons - later. It's part of the "old guard" of reality television, including shows such as American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, The Amazing Race and The Bachelor, which have been on the air for at least a decade.

So, what's the super-producer's secret? Burnett has two primary rules. The first is the main thinking behind Survivor, which rings very old school: He compares it to the days of letter-writing.

"When you got regular messages from people you love, you recognize the stationery, the postmark, the handwriting. ... What was exciting was you opened it each week and what was written inside on the stationery was a fresh message," Burnett said. "That's the philosophy of Survivor: We're not sending unusual stationery or unusual handwriting, but we are sending exciting, fresh news each week."

Burnett credits this combination - a viewer's need for familiar, comfortable programming while still injecting twists - for keeping Survivor a fan favourite for so long. The format rarely changes - host Jeff Probst is always there - but producers can throw in a gimmick each season. For some, it's a soothing routine. While ratings have dropped, it's still a steady performer.

Burnett emphasises the importance, especially in competition shows, of keeping the format steady without adding too many crazy twists or confusing rules. He uses the same underlying idea for shows such as Shark Tank and The Voice, other hit shows that he produces. "(Reality show) formats are like a board game," he said. "Certain games just work."

Contestants from the 30th season of Survivor, which recently aired on TV3.
CBS Broadcasting

Contestants from the 30th season of Survivor, which recently aired on TV3.

Burnett's other key point for enduring reality show success: Be nice and don't forget to feature likable people. It may seem counterintuitive when craziness brings the ratings. But it's no secret that viewers tired of American Idol making fun of terrible contestants. And mean-spirited shows over the years such as Are You Hot? or I Wanna Marry Harry drew early headlines for judging and pranking people, but were quickly cancelled.

"I remember when we did The Voice for the first time, people asked me, 'How's it going to make it?' " Burnett recalls, specifically because the show didn't have any William Hung-esque terrible contestants (as seen on Idol) that would attract attention. "I remember saying it was funny temporarily - but then after a while, it becomes sad."

In the end, if viewers associate you with a feel-good premise (again: back to the theme of comfort), they're more likely to watch.

"We're trying to propagate positivity while still having drama. And the two aren't mutually exclusive. You don't need to be mean to create drama," Burnett said. "There's a lot of negative stuff out there. And it's great to not be contributing to that."

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 - The Washington Post

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