Mark Burnett Teams with AOL to create all new, web based reality series

February 22nd, 2006

Mark Burnett Makes AOL Game

Online treasure hunt will provide web-based reality series across portal's sites.
January 31, 2006

America Online has teamed up with Mark Burnett, creator of the reality series “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” to create an online treasure hunt called “Gold Rush!”

The web-based reality series will run across several sites on the AOL network, including AOL.com, AIM.com, Moviefone.com, and MapQuest.com. Challengers will be able to hunt for clues across the sites and look for hidden treasure buried across the United States.

The clues and the online reality show will also be promoted on television, print, and cell phones. Mr. Burnett said he was amazed by the number of fans who communicated online about his TV series.

He believes that with more people able to watch content on their computers during the daytime, the hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. could become the equivalent of the next prime time on the TV programming schedule.

“Gold Rush!” will begin with 13 trucks containing solid gold, burying 13 caches of lucre around the United States, according to Mr. Burnett in an interview Tuesday. Clues regarding the whereabouts of those caches will be embedded online through the AOL web sites and other media.

Level Playing Field

The clues will not require any particular specialized expertise to understand. “Many of the clues are based around pop culture,” explained Mr. Burnett. “You don't need an engineering degree or math degree. It's really for regular people.”

One clue, for example, might ask where players can find a “ray of light” in America, which could be a reference to the Madonna album.

“You piece together the clues like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Mr. Burnett.

Players can play online or they may choose to form a syndicate to have others help them dig up the treasure. 'Gold Rush!” will also have some resemblance to Mr. Burnett's TV shows in terms of the format.

“It will be a fun, interactive game and it will be in my style with a big opening,” he said.

“Gold Rush!” is not the first reality series to play on AOL. The Dulles, Virginia-based company owned by New York City-based Time Warner has previously run The Biz in conjunction with its sister company, Warner Music Group. It also had another series called Start Up about a small business launch.

The new series will also be getting some competition from Yahoo, which is reportedly developing a web-based series called Treasure Hunt that may be produced by Steven Spielberg.

Reality Pioneer

The partnership with Mark Burnett Productions will give AOL the clout of a pioneer in the reality TV industry.

“This is a totally original concept that comes to us from the guy who created reality television,” said America Online CEO Jonathan Miller. “It defines engagement. It's disruptive by nature and it certainly will be habit forming—all the best of the Internet in one fell swoop.”

Mr. Burnett said he had worked very hard with AOL and signed the deal at midnight Sunday with AOL COO Kevin Conroy. Mr. Miller was also heavily involved in the project.

Mr. Burnett has been laboring on the project for about a year and hired a dedicated staff. He contacted several magazines many months ago about partnering on the project, and has been working with AOL in recent months.

While not all of Mr. Burnett's efforts have proven to be hits, after the recent flops of the Martha Stewart version of The Apprentice and the boxing show The Contender, he is generally credited with having a good sense of what will appeal to TV viewers.

Mr. Burnett now will be faced with the challenge of extending that franchise to the Internet.

AOL has been trying to attract more visitors to its web site during the past year to bring in more revenue from advertising. Last summer, the webcasting of the Live 8 concerts proved to be more satisfying to many viewers than the coverage provided on TV by MTV and VH1.

AOL has also been improving its broadband capabilities for TV-like efforts by partnering with more broadband providers such as BellSouth, AT&T, and Qwest Communications last Friday to expand its AOL High Speed service (see AOL Expands Broadband).

The online treasure hunt could bring more viewers back to AOL as it broadens its entertainment offerings.

Buried Clues and Gold

Although the show will have a multimedia component with clues in magazines and TV shows, Mr. Burnett said he did not plan to make Gold Rush! into a TV series. But he believes the TV networks could boost the ratings of their existing shows by including clues within them.

He acknowledged there might be one or two TV specials to supplement the AOL shows. But the show will mostly consist of three- to five-minute programming clips shown multiple times per day on AOL, giving new clues. The episodes will also be archived so players can go back and look at past clues and solutions.

“The wonderful thing about the Internet is everything is archived,” said Mr. Burnett. “If over the last three weeks, six solid gold caches have been found, you can go back and look at the solutions and the clues and see how the clue providers are thinking.”

He plans to protect the treasure by keeping the overall solutions confined to a tiny set of people, even if the various clues become widely known. “There are many paths to many clues, but only a very small group will know the grand total sum of those clues,” said Mr. Burnett.

His team has not yet begun burying the gold around the country. “In the next few months, we'll kick the program off,” said Mr. Burnett.

If You Build it, They Will Come

He added that he is excited about the project. “It's a very big initiative for America Online and myself,” said Mr. Burnett. 'We saw what America Online did with Live 8. If you indeed provide great content, people will come.”

He believes that in a few years television and online sites will be widely available on the same screen, and viewers will be going back and forth between the two media seamlessly.

AOL will send out alerts via AOL Instant Messenger, and possibly via wireless instant messages, to let players know when a cache of gold has been found. Players will then be able to tune in to AOL to watch a brief interview with whoever found the cache.

The show itself will air only on AOL.com, but the clues will be available at different AOL web sites, such as MapQuest, according to AOL spokesperson Ruth Sarfaty.

She noted that Mr. Burnett had called “Gold Rush!” a pop culture cross between National “Treasure” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

“We are aiming at online gamers and reality TV fans,” said Ms. Sarfaty. “There are going to be very arcane, hard-to-find clues, and they'll be buried well within the AOL content.”

For example, a player might need to go to AOL Video, find a particular video, and watch it to find out the clue. She expects the series to debut sometime later this year.