Mark Burnett and his wife and producing partner, actress Roma Downey, were in Chicago earlier this week — here to promote their upcoming “Son of God” film about the life and times of Jesus Christ. It is a big screen expansion of that key New Testament episode from their hugely-successful “The Bible” cable miniseries.
Along with talking about “Son of God” (opening Feb. 28) with Downey and Burnett (which will appear here next month), I also did want to get Burnett’s take on the current state of reality TV. As the guy responsible for such shows as “The Amazing Race,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice,” “Shark Tank,” and other programming, Burnett was the perfect person to comment on that genre of television. Here’s his take on all that.
Q: You have created some of the best reality shows, but now there is so much out there. Do you think there’s a glut of reality programming on the market?
A: For me, an ideal primetime lineup includes comedy, drama, sports, news and reality. In the end, all that matters is if a show is emotionally connective to an audience. It really doesn’t matter if it’s scripted or unscripted. It just matters that it’s connective — and connecting — with an audience.
Q: When you say, “connective” or “connecting” with an audience, what do you mean by that?
A: In general I think people today are looking for things that are full of hope and are uplifting. I think people are really done with negative things, the tearing-down of people and negative stereotypes. They have too much of that in their real lives — paying bills, struggling to keep their jobs, or find a job if they’re out of work, paying the mortgage and hanging on to their homes. Plus many people are dealing with problems with their kids. They don’t want to sit down and then watch negative stuff on television that remind them of that. They’re looking for an escape — for things they can find positive and entertaining.
Q: Is there a secret to constructing a good reality show?
A: Well, simply put, if it’s not great — in the end it won’t work and won’t last. People won’t watch it. Having a TV series on primetime, American TV — you have to treat it the same as a $100 million, big screen feature film. You have to put it together with the same care and attention to detail as you do when you make a big, blockbuster movie. I have had a lot of experience with this for a long time. I constantly think about the fact that people are letting us into their living rooms and bedrooms with our reality programming. When people do negative stuff they don’t last. I think there’s a big lesson as we’ve seen many of those kinds of show — if not all — drop from the scene.
Q: What have you learned from your experiences of producing reality television?
A: It’s always a learning experience! Let’s face it, it’s a ratings-driven business. It’s about trying to create a hit. And, sometimes, for various reasons — not everything you do becomes a hit. I’ve been very, very lucky and very fortunate and have had a number of big hits. But that doesn’t spoil me in the least. I never sit back and think — ‘Oh, that was easy. We’ll just do that again.’ — It always requires a ton of very hard work, bringing together a team of top-notch people and, of course — luck!
Not to repeat myself, but it’s worth repeating: As I said earlier, you have to give people something that is uplifting and makes them feel good while they’re watching. Otherwise it won’t last.