Mr. Burnett, arguably the most advertiser-friendly producer working in Hollywood today, will have a lot riding on the next few months. Not only is he prepping for the seventh and eight seasons of the CBS series, but he is busy collaborating with Jeff Zucker on two reality projects for NBC, "The Restaurant" and "The Apprentice" with Donald Trump.
At the height of upfront week, the chief executive of Mark Burnett Productions sat down in his New York hotel suite with Madison + Vine editor Hank Kim to discuss the future of TV and advertising.
AA: Unlike some of its competitors, CBS has been smart about not overexposing "Survivor." Is there a limit to how long you can keep the show fresh and maintain its dominance?
Mr. Burnett: My job as the showrunner on "Survivor" is the same as the showrunner on "CSI," "Everybody Loves Raymond" or "ER," and that is to be creative and entertain my loyal viewing audience. Because we don't write scripts for our shows, I have to create situational drama. I'm always thinking seasons ahead in terms of what might be an interesting twist. For example, with the Amazon edition, which we just completed successfully, I had the idea that a battle of the sexes would be a way to generate some heat around the project.
AA: Why has the show been such a colossal hit while other reality shows don't make the same impact?
Mr. Burnett: "Survivor" has been built purely on storytelling and character development. It's certainly not a game show and it's certainly not a reality show in the true sense of the word. It's an unscripted drama and people are compelled by the interaction between the contestants. What resonates are characters that are believable. The drama is no less compelling than if it was written and that's what I have to continue to build upon.
AA: Why will "The Restaurant" and the Trump project, "The Apprentice," resonate with viewers and advertisers?
Mr. Burnett: I'm a street-smart entrepreneur who didn't go to college and started in business selling T-shirts on Venice Beach. I've always liked the idea of who does better, the Harvard MBA or the street-smart guy. I've known Donald Trump and have read all his books; I think he's an incredible, colorful businessman. Trump is also media savvy and I see him giving great one-take sound bites. My reason for getting involved with "The Restaurant" in large part has to do with my interest in exploring new financing models. Magna Global Entertainment brought in American Express, Coors, and Mitsubishi to pay the license fee and fund the TV production whereby there is minimal risk to NBC. Also a restaurant environment behind the scenes is a pressure cooker. As a creative television producer, if there's going to be an unscripted drama without any kind of contest or prize, this is as good as anything.
AA: There seems to be a great deal of ambivalence about reality in the marketplace. While advertisers seem to becoming less cautious about investing in reality, all the networks announced this week that they're refocusing on scripted fare for the fall. How will it shake out over the long term?
MR. BURNETT: Forget whether it's reality or not. Is it good TV or bad TV? Reality-unscripted-dramas are being held to the same high standards as dramas and comedies. The good news is that advertisers have shown they want good television, not the stuff that is salacious and lowest common denominator. Any thing that turns off viewers like "Are You Hot?" [on ABC]-done by my good friend Mike Fleiss, a great producer-you won't see much more of that.
AA: You recently partnered with the folks at Carsey Werner Mandabach on "Are We There Yet?," a scripted TV pilot for The WB. Are you just testing the waters or are you committed to making scripted shows a higher priority?
MR. BURNETT: We are an entertainment company and are absolutely committed to dramas, comedies and features. Finding the correct writers to execute our ideas is our next focus. And we signed with Creative Artists [Agency] for that reason alone. Expect at the next upfront to see a couple of our scripted shows on network schedules.
AA: You've been credited with creating an advertiser-friendly environment on "Survivor," where brands are woven into the programs, giving advertisers more bang for their investment with CBS. What is the key to effective product integration in reality TV?
MR. BURNETT: These days with TiVo and remote control, it is more critical than ever that advertisers get associative value-direct and implied. With "Survivor," I was asking for a 13-episode commitment, a whole season, with no pilot. Leslie Moonves totally got the concept and thought I could execute it, but he needed to be sure that it was going to be financially workable. So he let me work with [the network sales team] to sell the advertisers. I sold the concept to advertisers by explaining how much sense it would make for someone on an island a million miles from home to crave a soft drink or something to eat from home. It was humorous to bring these products into that environment. It was like "Gilligan's Island." It's worked in movies forever; these products are a part of our lives.
AA: What are the challenges in achieving successful product integration in the scripted realm?
MR. BURNETT: It's going to happen. While "Are We There Yet?" didn't make it onto WB's lineup, it will get on the air because I'm tenacious. What's funnier than a family from the Midwest driving around Europe in a car, sick of the local food, turning to an American fast-food restaurant. It's funny, seamless, and appropriate. Maybe some scripted writers want purity in their craft and aren't business people. I'm unusual in that I'm a creative producer who is very advertiser-friendly and I'm quite well known on Madison Avenue and have delivered consistently on my promises to advertisers. I've never understood why there has to be a separation between the advertising community and the creative television community. Because who are the most creative people in the world but the people who tell whole stories in 30 seconds and sell billions of dollars in product.
AA: As you develop more and more scripted shows, how will you get showrunners and writers on board in working cooperatively with brands?
MR. BURNETT: I've already got that with "Are We There Yet?" I worked with the writers from "3rd Rock From the Sun" and they are brilliant and totally got it and immediately started writing around that. There is no question that it will happen in the same way that there was no question that Americans should build railroads to the West or man should go into space. How could it not happen when there's going to be 500 channels of television, TiVo, and the entire business model of the networks is built around the advertising dollar?
AA: What would you say if an advertiser wanted to actually put a creative director from one of its ad agencies at the development table?
MR. BURNETT: I'd totally welcome it. I get some of my best ideas from [production assistants], the receptionist. An incredibly smart ad person coming to help would be great. Who cares? What's important is that every Thursday at eight, I beat "Friends." That's all I care about.
AA: Is it far-fetched to imagine producers like yourself reaping more of the advertising revenue from the networks as a reward for delivering hits?
MR. BURNETT: We're very well rewarded for our work and there are a number of ways to be paid fairly for excellence. I don't view it as we'll do the creative job over here and then the network goes out and deals solely with the advertising. We've worked well as a team with CBS. I've got great deals with Jeff Zucker on "The Apprentice" and also on "The Restaurant." There are many financial models. We don't demand a share of advertising. It doesn't matter whether you get ratings bonuses or whether you take a share of the ad revenue after costs. Certainly making a small part of a large number versus a big part of nothing makes perfect sense. The way we look at it is, we're willing to make most of our money on success.
AA: Will advertisers demand backend participation for bringing money to the development table?
MR. BURNETT: I've got no idea what the advertisers will do regarding that. Anything's possible.
AA: So you haven't heard any of your Madison Avenue friends floating that idea?
MR. BURNETT I didn't say that, I'm just not talking about it.
AA: You recently signed with CAA for representation. Talent agencies are becoming increasingly active in this Madison + Vine space, cozying up to blue chip marketers like Coke and General Motors. What impact do you see them making?
MR. BURNETT: I think it's only appropriate and smart for talent agencies and management companies to put plenty of effort into Madison Avenue. It certainly factored into my decision of where to put my representation. They're very happy that I've been a re-pioneer in making advertisers a big part of business thinking.
AA: With the specter of TiVo and other PVRs, where do you see the network TV model going?
MR. BURNETT: There will still be commercials. There will, however, down the road be many more programs sponsored by advertisers and product integration. If TiVo's price comes down, it'll be as ubiquitous as the VCR. Great thing about TiVo is my six-year-old kid can use it. It's that simple. Whereas I still have trouble figuring out my VCR.