That is, until they saw the stunned reaction from reporters. Burnett remembers them staring at the movielike footage, which followed contestants living on a deserted island as they competed to win a $1 million prize. It was unlike anything that had ever been on broadcast TV before. And it was then that Burnett realized he had something special.
“At that moment, I was just excited,” Burnett says almost 15 years later. “Little did I realize it truly [would become] a game-changer.”
“Survivor” premiered on May 31, 2000 – as illustrated, the extreme success of the show officially led to an explosion in the reality TV genre as networks realized the potential gold mine of a programming that was cheaper to produce than scripted shows. Even more amazingly, “Survivor” endures 15 years – and 30 seasons – later. It’s part of the “old guard” of reality television, including shows such as “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “The Amazing Race” and “The Bachelor,” which have been on the air for at least a decade.
So, what’s the super-producer’s secret? Burnett has two primary rules. The first is the main thinking behind “Survivor,” which rings very old school: He compares it to the days of letter-writing.
“When you got regular messages from people you love, you recognize the stationery, the postmark, the handwriting. . . . What was exciting was you opened it each week and what was written inside on the stationery was a fresh message,” Burnett said. “That’s the philosophy of ‘Survivor’: We’re not sending unusual stationery or unusual handwriting, but we are sending exciting, fresh news each week.”
Burnett credits this combination – a viewer’s need for familiar, comfortable programming while still injecting twists – for keeping “Survivor” a fan favorite for so long. The format rarely changes – host Jeff Probst is always there – but producers can throw in a gimmick each season. For some, it’s a soothing routine. While ratings have dropped, it’s still a steady performer for CBS.
Burnett emphasizes the importance, especially in competition shows, of keeping the format steady without adding too many crazy twists or confusing rules. He uses the same underlying idea for shows such as ABC’s “Shark Tank” and NBC’s “The Voice,” other hit shows that he produces. “[Reality show] formats are like a board game,” he said. “Certain games just work.”
Burnett’s other key point for enduring reality show success: Be nice and don’t forget to feature likable people. It may seem counterintuitive when craziness brings the ratings. But it’s no secret that viewers tired of “American Idol” making fun of terrible contestants. And mean-spirited shows over the years such as “Are You Hot?” or “I Wanna Marry Harry” drew early headlines for judging and pranking people, but were quickly canceled.
“I remember when we did ‘The Voice’ for the first time, people asked me, ‘How’s it going to make it?'” Burnett recalls, specifically because the show didn’t have any William Hung-esque terrible contestants (as seen on “Idol”) that would attract attention. “I remember saying it was funny temporarily – but then after a while, it becomes sad.”
In the end, if viewers associate you with a feel-good premise (again: back to the theme of comfort), they’re more likely to watch.
“We’re trying to propagate positivity while still having drama. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t need to be mean to create drama,” Burnett said. “There’s a lot of negative stuff out there. And it’s great to not be contributing to that.”