Reality King Mark Burnett Takes on the History Channel

Q&A: TV Producer Talks About 'Expedition,' the Ad Sales/Production Disconnect and the Fate of 'Jingles'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Mark Burnett has created some of the most enduring reality franchises on broadcast TV, from CBS's "Survivor" to NBC's "The Apprentice," each with integrated ad models that established precedents for product placement and helped rewrite the branded-entertainment rulebook.

'Expedition Africa: Stanley and Livingstone'
'Expedition Africa: Stanley and Livingstone' Credit: History/Brent Stirton
On May 31, Mr. Burnett will premiere his first original series for a cable network in years, History Channel's "Expedition Africa: Stanley and Livingstone," which he described as "one of my most favorite projects ever." The eight-part series chronicles three explorers and one journalist as they attempt to recreate Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley's nine-month trek through Tanzania in only 90 days.

Although the show was designed to remain as faithful to the original expedition as possible, a few liberties were taken in helping the explorers navigate some particularly rough terrain in the name of branded entertainment, courtesy of Subaru, whose 2.5i Outback will be integrated into four of the show's episodes. Other presenting sponsors of "Expedition" include Orbitz and Fidelity.

While History pitched sponsors on the deals, Mr. Burnett worked with the network to figure out how the brands could fit into the journey without straying too far from the show's authenticity. "As always, when the producer understands the value of the integrations and has to make it seamless, everybody becomes happy because it all fits," he said.

Sales/production divide
But those happy, lock-step collaborations between reality producers and ad-sales teams are rare, a point Mr. Burnett addressed recently at a Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon, saying there's still a "massive disconnect" between the two. Yet Mr. Burnett told Ad Age he has been an exception, helping engineer storylines around brands since his first reality competition, "Eco Challenge," for the Discovery Channel. "It's just a matter of getting everyone to work together and allowing the sponsors to fit like a glove," he said. "It makes the sponsors reach their goals and the viewers' enjoyment remains paramount."

With Mr. Burnett's name so revered by advertisers, it's a bit of a shock, then, that he can't seem to get his most ad-friendly project, "Jingles," on the air. Filmed for CBS last summer as a commercial-jingle competition, featuring Julie Roehm, Linda Kaplan Thaler and Kiss' Gene Simmons as judges, "Jingles" was shelved indefinitely in late July, with little talk of it finding a new timeslot since.

In the meantime, Mr. Burnett has plenty to keep him busy, with more projects in simultaneous production and development than ever before. Next month, Mr. Burnett will produce his third consecutive MTV Movie Awards, which has become an even bigger commercial vehicle for sponsors under his direction. This summer also brings the debut of "Wedding Day," a new-nuptials reality series for TNT that will invite a few integrated sponsors to the ceremony. Also in the works are a syndicated version of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?," the renewal of Martha Stewart's daytime talk show through 2010 and a new project with "Celebrity Apprentice" star Joan Rivers called "How'd You Get So Rich?" Of the latter, Mr. Burnett commented, "It's a fun project and Joan is hilarious, asking that question to people who have expensive cars or large homes who are not famous. It's an inspiring story of people who've made it from nothing. I love this country so much and I love those entrepreneurial stories."

Mark Burnett
Mark Burnett Credit: WireImage
Taking a breather from his jam-packed schedule, Mr. Burnett spoke recently with Madison & Vine about "Expedition," why branded entertainment still works for him and, of course, the status of "Jingles."

Madison & Vine: You've created some of the biggest reality shows on broadcast TV today. Why go to History for "Expedition"?

Mark Burnett: It really wasn't pitched anywhere else. It came out of a meeting with History, developed with History. They were looking for something that was big and adventurous and had a sense of history, but they didn't want to do re-creations. We came up with a unique and different kind of storytelling.

It's one of my most favorite projects ever. I really, really like the character development, how those guys get through the expedition together. They're all very A-type, all leaders in their own right. You get to see how sometimes you have to follow, you can't say everything that's on your mind. Certainly there's conflict, of course with the backdrop of Africa.

M&V: Would you like to expand "Expedition" for future seasons, provided all goes well this go-round? Or was this conceived more as a miniseries?

Mr. Burnett: If the series does well, we absolutely want to do more expeditions, all around an historical [timeline]. I've also thought doing something around Marco Polo would be fascinating, also Genghis Khan. I'm also interested in Pizarro, for example, in South America with Machu Picchu and the Spanish conquistadors. With all these wonderful expeditions that took place, you'd get a great fit of dramatic storytelling.

I'd also like to keep the same cast -- they're a great group of explorers. Genuinely, they met for the very first time in that room [in the first episode]. I loved the authenticity of that. During the journey, it was pronounced that neither the camera people nor the producers spoke to the explorers. We were very much flies on the wall, and let them deal with all the issues themselves.

M&V: You've been publicly vocal as of late about the disconnect between reality producers and the selling of sponsorships within their shows. Is that true for your shows too?

Mr. Burnett: Let me clarify what I said about it, because I am involved in those discussions. I'm one of the few because, starting with "Eco-Challenge" ... I had to find the funding to make that show a reality. And it went on from there with "Survivor," "The Apprentice," and you'll see this summer with "Wedding Day," I've always worked with the sponsors, which does help.

It's always helpful to know the intentions to begin on the financial model. Integrated sponsorship has occurred since the beginning of sports and the Olympics. I want to create an associative value -- an association between the show and how products fit in the storytelling. The earlier you're involved in the planning on this, the easier it is to execute.

M&V: Your two biggest franchises, "Survivor" and "Apprentice," are nearly a decade into their respective life cycles now. What are you doing to keep them fresh for both viewers and marketers?

Mr. Burnett: With "Survivor," I've been fortunate to be surrounded by a big team of people who really care about the show. A key element of why "Survivor" continues to endure is, while we keep it fresh, we don't completely change what it stands for. I've often said before, it really is like a letter from home. In the old days you'd get handwritten envelopes with a postmark from their town and a certain kind of stamp. You knew the familiar handwriting because you knew who it was from, but what was exciting was the different content of the letter each time.

And "Apprentice," the big change was the celebrity version for charity. I thought it really added something, and it's a really hugely talked about subject. Everywhere I go people talking about "Celebrity Apprentice." What makes it great is the celebrities aren't hamming for the cameras, they really want to win -- there's authentic drama.

M&V: What's the status on "Jingles," the ad-jingle competition you started casting last summer for CBS but indefinitely shelved in July?

Mr. Burnett: It's very hard to get a slot on CBS. It's the No. 1 network in terms of its growth and ratings. It's there, but I have no idea whether it will actually get shown. I'm glad we made it.