Mark Burnett, spoke with Deadline about the current state of reality TV. The Voice and Survivor producer had plenty to say about the fall of American Idol and why he has managed to prevail. Burnett also produces Shark Tank, which has maintained steady ratings on Friday nights.
Burnett is asked about Survivor beating American Idol in both viewers and demo ratings, for the first time this season:
It’s astounding how Idol was so far ahead, and Survivor just passed it early in the season and just kept going. It’s funny actually because a lot of people said to me, “Wow, should Idol be worried about The Voice this season?’, and I said, ‘Yeah, probably, but they should be more worried about Survivor.’ People laughed at me, and said, ‘Yeah, sure, that’s an old show.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’
Here, Burnett explains why what it is about Survivor, another old show, that allowed it to get ahead of Idol.
I think it’s because we’ve kept the game sacrosanct. We’ve kept the foundational values of the game completely in place. It’s a fantastic game, and we can all see ourselves, at some point, as Robinson Crusoe, and Lord of the Flies, what would we do, and we’re watching it play out. The thing about Idol is I don’t think we know what it is anymore. It’s neither here nor there. I think that all needs to be fixed if they intend to go forward.
As The Voice declines in ratings, we’ll see how much or little Burnett winds up futzing with it.
Deadline asks if the decline of Idol is emblematic of reality TV running its course. Reality TV in general isn’t going anywhere, he says. What’s fallen out of favor is the darker, cynical shows that poke fun at people or traffic in humiliation.
Look, reality TV isn’t going anywhere. Unscripted is now as valuable a foundation of television as sports, news, comedy and drama. They’re all foundational as is reality TV. But it has changed over the years and as producer you have to look at what’s working. I’ve looked at how certain shows have fallen off drastically when they continue with this trying to poke fun at a lifestyle or a type of people. In unscripted network TV, which my focus, obviously, you have to look at the rejection of humiliation. I think it’s a shift in the country. It’s not just TV. I think there’s still a place for darker, scripted TV. I mean, I don’t do that, but there’s a place for it, but it’s scripted, and it’s clearly fictional, and that’s OK. I think maybe why the rejection of dark, cynical, humiliation-driven unscripted is that these are real people, and there’s a responsibility for the network and the producers, of not capitalizing on humiliating people.
Deadline mentions that its a major shift. Burnett goes on to say network showrunners who don’t create excellence will bite the dust. *coughnigellythgoecough* *coughsimoncowellcough*
Yes but the one thing that’s not really a shift but a solidification of values is that network TV has to be a level above anything else available. It just has to be. There’s a certain standard, and it’s making the group of trusted show runners ever shrinking because the networks are not going to put up with anything less than excellence, they’re just not. So that’s just a fact. There’s a certain thing about certain shows that are not my shows, like The Biggest Loser, and The Bachelor franchise, and Dancing With The Stars, these are rock solid. The producers who make these shows understand the consequences if you don’t treat this like a big movie every time.
Burnett explains how to create great unscripted TV consistently
It cannot be phoned in, it has to continue to be great, and my philosophy of when you find something that works, it creates an anchor. It’s an emotional anchor for people. In the days of letters, or still people get handwritten notes and letters, you know, which come from the same person, you recognize the handwriting, you recognize the stationery, there’s an anchoring feeling when you get a handwritten letter. It’s what’s written inside that’s fresh. So a successful franchise is creating anchoring moments, anchoring phrases, anchoring music, lensing, that makes you feel a certain way, and you recognize your favorite show. It’s just the interesting freshness each week within that anchoring, emotional connection, that’s important. That’s what works. When they tune in for Shark Tank, and Shark Tank’s become a destination on Fridays, they’re expecting to see Shark Tank. They’re not expecting that a bunch of producers and a network decide let’s completely change it. Only stupidity reigns when people take successful franchises and feel they’re going to completely change them for whatever reason.
It appears Burnett feels that the humiliation of hopefuls that used to anchor Idol’s big ratings has fallen out of fashion. But, the showrunners changed Idol up so much, it lost the plot and is now unrecognizable.
The interviewer never brought up the fact that both The Voice and Survivor fell in the ratings compared to previous cycles. (See ratings for 2013 and 2014). Survivor is holding up pretty well for an old show, but there is not much to brag about when you’re beating a show like Idol, that’s in the middle of a ratings free-fall.