Television Listings

Q&A: Reality honcho Burnett dives into "Shark Tank"

By James Hibberd

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Mark Burnett, the Emmy-winning producer of such reality shows as "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," is at it again.

His latest venture, ABC's "Shark Tank," premieres August 9 and offers entrepreneurs the chance to have their products become reality, if they can convince a panel of real-life business moguls -- the sharks -- to part with their money.

Speaking from an undisclosed location in the South Pacific, where the 19th season of "Survivor" is being filmed, Burnett chatted about his new series, the need to change Emmy rules and the iconic show he calls "part 'Swiss Family Robinson,' 'Cast Away' and 'Lord of the Flies.'"

The Hollywood Reporter: Do you think it's significant that "Shark Tank" is the only new reality show that has made it to the fall broadcast TV schedule?

Mark Burnett: "Shark Tank" is an extremely high-quality (show). The people at ABC and Disney love it. It feels like (it) belongs up there with great dramas. (The contestants) are high and dry. They've got great ideas or existing small businesses that they can't take to the next level. At the same time these wealthy investors are looking to invest. It really is that golden opportunity -- and maybe the last opportunity -- for some of these people, so you really can feel the genuine tension and drama in the air.

THR: Reality shows used to be considered counterprogramming. On the fall schedule, if nothing changes, there will be three reality shows, including "Shark Tank," on at the same time. Does that worry you at all?

Burnett: If you can't play in the big leagues, then you can only make it when you play against weak opposition. You're never going to win the championship. Two or more shows can make it in the same time slot. I'm not frightened by it. Only a weak person would be not willing to go forward unless it was easy.

THR: You executive produced the recent MTV Awards. In retrospect, was the Bruno stunt a good idea?

Burnett: The Bruno and Eminem moment was great. It's MTV. You're allowed to take risks. You're allowed to have fun. I had no idea what Sacha (Baron Cohen) was actually going to do. He's the next Charlie Chaplin in some ways. He really is a clown and a genius, but that means he's on a different planet. No matter what he might say to you ... it could be very, very different. We buckled our seatbelts. We were on this wild ride and we didn't know if we were going to crash or if we were going to (succeed). The adrenaline was insane.

THR: Now that the season is over, do you prefer "The Apprentice" as a one-hour show or would you rather NBC continued stretching it to two hours next season?

Burnett: I loved the two-hour "Apprentice." Everywhere I went during "Apprentice," people came up to me and were so opinionated about everything from Dennis Rodman, Joan and Melissa Rivers ... it went on and on and on. That's when I knew we had lightning. No one ever said to me, "It felt too long." We have a great team, and we're fully ready to continue with the two-hour format.

THR: There were some discussions at NBC about whether the show would return to the "everyday people" format next season or continue with a celebrity cast.

Burnett: I think we could do both. I don't think that we'd just go and do a regular one, but I think we could alternate seasons with it. There's certainly a real place there for finding people who've lost jobs but who are really smart and driven -- it's just a bad economy -- and that would be a good thematic season: giving people another chance. On the other hand, "Celebrity Apprentice" has done so well, there's no way we're going to move off that right now. Only a fool would chance success.

THR: It's been said that you're considering something special for the 20th season of "Survivor," like an all-star version with some sort of format change.

Burnett: There's so much being discussed. No decisions have been made. Clearly it's 10 years (and) 20 seasons. We'll do something really cool, but we certainly won't be making any big format changes.

THR: There are a lot of different reality shows coming up, such as "More to Love," "Crash Course," "Undercover Boss" and "Somebody's Gotta Go." Are there any that you think are good ideas or stand a chance at success?

Burnett: I think "More to Love" (billed as a dating competition for "average-looking" people) has a really big chance because most of the population are not cover girls or male models, therefore it's relatable. Everybody deserves love, everybody deserves a chance. I wish I'd thought of it. It takes some elements of "The Biggest Loser," some elements of "The Bachelor" and merges them. You can never underestimate (Fox president of alternative programing) Mike Darnell.

THR: What's your favorite reality show to watch -- that's not one of your own?

Burnett: "American Idol." I've got three kids, and it's a great shared family viewing experience. I'm sure it's why "Survivor" is so successful. "Survivor" is also a great shared family viewing experience. You won't see on "Survivor" unnecessary nudity or certain language choices.

THR: The Emmy nominations are coming up. Which reality show deserves to win?

Burnett: I do feel that the reality category needs to be expanded. I understand why they don't because despite the fact that more viewers watch reality. There are no actual stars and they're concerned about the TV broadcast having star-quality red-carpet stars. But actually half of the top 10 shows on television are reality series. I feel that lumping a talent show like "American Idol" in with an adventure/competition show like "Survivor" -- and even with something like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which has got no elimination, just an hour of really cool, dramatic, heartwarming TV -- it's almost the same as putting a sports program, a comedy and a drama in the same category.

THR: Is it true you're selling your company?

Burnett: No! I'm happily making television, and a lot of people say a lot of things, you know. I'm happy puddling along making good television. If the right opportunity came along to acquire the right companies or do something really exciting and interesting that complements what I'm doing, then I would totally consider it, but nothing right now.

THR: You're the first reality producer to get a star on the Walk of Fame.

Burnett: It really is a very big thing because (the star) lives on, on that street that my grandchildren can be taken to see way after I'm dead and gone. I came to this country, worked hard, and the American dream came true. That star in the pavement (is the proof).

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

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