'Survivor': Mark Burnett

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Regardless of which contestant is left standing in the Australian Outback or Kenya, the real winners of "Survivor" are CBS and its sponsors.

The crown jewel of reality TV has left its mark on pop culture and the Viacom-owned network's bottom line. "Survivor" turned around CBS' fortunes, delivering the coveted 18-to-49-year-old viewers. It also made product placement a star of network TV, with sponsors' products woven into the story line.

Executive Producer Mark Burnett, 41, says when he pitched "Survivor" to CBS, everyone perked up at the concept, but skittish programmers balked when he insisted it air as a series, not a pilot, and that cameras roll 4,000 miles away. CBS' green light came after Mr. Burnett proved "Survivor's" economic viability. "I went with CBS ad sales, and almost every person we pitched was interested," he says.

Mr. Burnett envisions "Survivor" as a commercial vehicle as much as a TV drama. His model: the Olympics. "Advertisers are looking for innovation and added value. Associating your brand with another is the way to go."

Sponsors have included such heavyweights as Target Stores and PepsiCo's Mountain Dew and Frito-Lay. The third installment, set in Africa, starts this month.

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