Survivor producer Mark Burnett to me: “You ask such stupid questions”

Thursday night at a party for the new Oprah Winfrey network, OWN, I briefly interviewed Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett, who recently produced HGTV’s Design Star and also has a show on OWN called Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star, and the conversation did not go well.

It was four minutes and 40 seconds of contentiousness, and I’m not even quite sure why. We’ve never talked before–during my three times on location with Survivor, he was only there once, in Samoa–and he didn’t appear to look at my name tag and say, “You’re the asshole who ruined my show by publishing the contestants’ contract and rule book.” Nor did we merely disagree–or even disagree angrily. I’m more than willing to debate with someone if we have opposing opinions, just like I’m always glad to correct the record if I’ve been wrong about something. But pretty much the whole time I felt like I was imposing on him somehow (though he was at a party for TV critics that exists in large part for those critics to interact with and interview producers and talent) and asking the most absurd questions imaginable. But judge for yourself.

I started by asking Burnett what I thought was a softball question, but one whose answer I was curious about: “You did Design Star: Did you learn anything from that that you applied to this show?” I asked.

He looked at me like I had tentacles coming out of my nostrils, and after a pause said, “That’s a joke, right? That’s a joke question.”

“No,” I said. Really, how could that be a joke? Both shows are about getting your own TV show; as far as I know, Burnett has never before produced a show about getting your own TV show, and now he has two airing within in six months.

“No, I haven’t produced 10 seasons of The Apprentice,” he said, sarcastically.

“Obviously,” I said, slightly confused, since The Apprentice seems like a very different show. I asked him, “Is the template like this more like The Apprentice, or is it more like Design Star?”

“Don’t you think Design Star’s a bit more like Apprentice?” Burnett asked me.

“I don’t, I actually don’t,” I said. “The criteria is so different.”

“Are they all like Survivor?” he asked.

“On some fundamental level, absolutely, sure, I’ll give you that,” I said, and since this wasn’t going anywhere, decided to just go for a more aggressive question. “So, Design Star this season wasn’t well-received. Were you happy with how it came out?”

Burnett said, “It was great. I thought it looked fantastic.” (This is the kind of nuance it’s easy to miss in a conversation, and I didn’t notice until now, as I’m transcribing it. Sure, it looked fantastic; the cinematography was excellent, particularly the second unit shots of New York. But it was a terrible season.)

“Did you?”

“Yeah,” Burnett said, not elaborating.

“Are you going to do another season of it, or is it still up in the air?” I asked.

“No, I’m not. No, I’m not. Um. I’m not doing that again,” he said. To be honest, I got the impression Burnett was screwing with me here, so I don’t think this is big news, although who knows. But he answered as if I’d asked him if he was going to set his hair on fire.

So I switched to Survivor, and the show’s upcoming, format-changing twist: “Are you excited about the big change?”

“It’s coming on in…” he said, and I finished: “February, right?” He said, “About a month, I think.”

I returned to the twist, which I’m excited about. “It’s a big overhaul. Previous twists don’t really change the game as much as this one.”

Burnett said, “We’ve done something like it before. But it’s a nice twist within the format. It’s a great thing in 2011, redemption. Very American. Very Christian.”

I said, “And the Amazing Race has a similar thing, so it seems to be…” He interrupted, “They do?” I explained their marketing of the new season as “unfinished business.”

“Oh, but not within the show. They’re bringing people who they had on previously. We’re not doing that,” Burnett said.

“You’re bringing back a couple people. Or so the rumors go,” I said.

Then he started explaining Redemption Island to me, which is either a clever way of avoiding the question or an acknowledgment that reports of Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz’s return were entirely wrong. “No, Redemption Island is when you get voted out, you get to another island. And the second person voted out goes to the island again. They have a challenge. The winner stays there. Third person goes to Redemption Island. … Technically, if you’re the first person out, if you won every challenge in a row on Redemption Island, under brutal conditions, you could come back.”

“And that changes everything. For that person for sure,” I said.

“But also, the other contestants are watching those challenges, and rooting against people in a huge way. That’s great drama,” he said.

“Do you think that’ll be a twist that sticks with the seasons, through 23 and 24? You going to keep that?”

“I would change it all the time. Whenever I feel like,” Burnett said.

“One last question. So, Survivor has had some budget cuts that Jeff Probst has talked about, with back-to-back seasons,” I said, referring to the conversation I had with Probst a year and a half ago, when he told me that filming two seasons in the same location, one after the other, was only “because of budget cuts” and “to save money,” and said that change was “going to be hard on” the hundreds of crew members who produce the show. (Read that whole interview for the full quotes.)

I continued, “Do you think that’s hurt the show? Not being able to do two challenges an episode, having to stay in the same place?”

Burnett said, “We can do two challenges an episode. What are you talking about?”

“Like this past season: So many combined reward/immunity challenges,” I said.

“That had nothing to with budget. That was a creative choice,” he said. “We have plenty of budget to do whatever challenges we want.”

“It’s just to focus more on the strategy, then?” I asked, standing corrected and genuinely curious about both my apparently inaccurate assumption–that budget also affected their ability to do two big challenges an episode–and how interesting it is that producers are choosing to eliminate 50 percent of one of the major draws, the competition.

“It depends what’s happening in the episode,” Burnett said. “In the episode…” He was interrupted by someone who came over to give him a hug and make small talk, and so I didn’t follow up on this, but it sounded like he was suggesting that they decide how many challenges to have on the fly, based on what’s going on, and that doesn’t make sense, considering how much planning and work is involved in creating each challenge.

Burnett returned from talking to the other person and said, “It has nothing to do with budget. You ask such stupid questions.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re just making it up,” he said.

I started to reference Probst’s comments to follow-up on the locations part of the question: “That’s what the producers have talked about…”

“That’s nonsense. We have one of the biggest budgets in television,” he said.

I asked, “And the back-to-back locations, that’s working okay for you?”

“Yeah, because we’re so used to doing themed seasons. There’s no real value in trucking everybody 3,000 miles to make a theme. So obviously, last season, was up from the previous season, yep, on a Wednesday. Survivor, in case you didn’t realize, is unbeaten in its timeslot in regular season in a decade.” (While the show has had an impressive run and nearly always wins its timeslot, it has been beaten before.)

“Impressive, for sure,” I said.

Burnett said, “It’s really hard to bust my balls about Survivor, right.”

“No, no, I love Survivor,” I said. “It’s a good show. Thank you for talking to me.”

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Beyond the headline-grabbing premise, the series has turned out to be a stripped-down, authentic exploration of something very interesting. Read the full review.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.