When Mark Burnett is anxious, he rolls objects in his hands. He palms them, molds them, pounds them flat. At the moment, he's liquefying a strawberry snatched from the lacquered refreshment spread set up by the Santa Monica Doubletree hotel. Outside, the California sun falls warm and pellucid on this early February morning, but inside the hotel's top-floor Presidential Suite, there's a chill. Today is the final day of casting for Burnett's Survivor show, the much-hyped reality soap/adventure challenge airing on CBS this summer. Pitting 16 castaways against one another for possession of a million dollars, Survivor may represent the zenith of manipulated, televised adventuring, a kind of Swiss Family Robinson as rejiggered by Machiavelli and MTV. The stakes are enormous, both for CBS, which is footing much of the multimillion-dollar cost of casting and filming the show in Borneo, and for Burnett, who has never produced a network show before.
So he's smashing finger food.
"I was awake all night obsessing about this," he announces to the two casting agents and the television producer in the room with him. Popping the sodden strawberry in his mouth, he reaches for a miniature muffin. "The way I see it, we need to find people who are wild, a little out there, kooky even." The muffin arcs from hand to hand. "But no psychopaths." Crumbs fall wanly to the floor. "Our insurance won't cover a nut case."
Reality-soap adventure is a taxing enterprise. Burnett, at 39, knows this. Since the mid-1990s, he has been the nation's premier mano-a-mano, faux-outdoor-challenge entrepreneur, playing a large role in shaping our pop-culture notion of "adventure." Recognizing a rising curve, he began with adventure racing, which is now touted as the fastest-growing team sport in America. Under the aegis of his company, Eco-Challenge Lifestyles, he staged the first Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in 1995. Within two years, the event was attracting millions of dollars in entry fees, major sponsorship from Subaru and Columbia Sportswear, and about seven million U.S. viewers for the race's five-hour distillation on cable.
Burnett grew restless under the mantle of success. "I like to think of myself as an empowered and bloody smart marketer," Burnett says, traces of his English childhood cockney burbling up through the SoCalspeak. "But a good salesman needs new and improved product." So in a few short years, he has created an outdoor empire, founding the Eco-Challenge Travel agency, the Eco-Challenge Lifestyles Web site, and, most important, Survivor, which debuted on CBS May 31. The show is one of the boldest outdoor-programming experiments ever, melding two seemingly disparate but similarly trendy preoccupations of modern America: the allure of the outdoors and of plentiful, easy bucks.
To succeed, however, such small-screen, high-stakes adventuring requires another element, as Burnett realizes: entertainment value. "Casting this thing is friggin' awful," he moans as he settles back into the suite's club chair. "People have to want to sleep with our cast, you know. But they have to identify with 'em, too, so they can't all look like bloody Julia Roberts. There has to be some Alan Alda." Already by 10 a.m. he and his caffeinated suitemates have seen—and dismissed—two Survivor hopefuls. Culled from more than 6,000 applicants, they and the other 46 semifinalists have submitted enthusiastic and sometimes eye-poppingly lewd videotapes. One featured a bikini-clad woman grilling steaks; as the camera zoomed in, it became clear that the bikini was, in fact, fashioned from raw meat. Another applicant swung from a tree, yodeling as his loincloth flipped up in the breeze. All the aspirants also completed lengthy questionnaires that asked, among many other things, which Gilligan's Island castaway they identify with. The results have yielded a cross section of thrill seekers, from a happy-go-lucky, college-age ski bum to a 72-year-old retired Navy SEAL.
Still, Burnett isn't satisfied. Earlier today he grilled a polite young Survivor wannabe about whether he would ever sleep with a "slutty" girl ("Uh, is it a requirement?" the startled 26-year-old accountant had replied). Afterward, Burnett had damned him as "so friggin' Clark Kent my eyes glazed over." The next supplicant provoked a similar reaction, albeit for different reasons. Dubbed "the Sex Kitten" by the room, she'd sashayed in in full sartorial Brockovich, and proceeded to alternately tease and bore. "All cleavage, no charisma," Burnett had concluded.
But as an assertive knock sounds on the suite's door, Burnett perks up. "This one's gonna be good," he tells the room. "I interviewed her already. She's smart, sexy, tough, a Stanford law grad." He adds cheerfully, "And she's a mess, too, lots of mother issues. She'll be great."
In the calculus of modern, made-for-television adventuring, clearly, glossy surfaces count for plenty. But you must have emotional depth, too. "My particular entertainment product is about what happens when man pits himself against nature," Burnett had mused a few days earlier. "As I see it, it's what people are looking for these days." Without a pause, he had added, "And there's lots of money in that market, mate."
Can Mark Burnett survive Gretchen Reynolds's pen? See the July/August ADVENTURE for the full story.
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