Reality video: Mark Burnett and AOL launch online pop-culture competition

September 20th, 2006

AOL and 'Survivor' Producer Introduce Online Game
By BILL CARTER

America Online and Mark Burnett, the best-known producer of reality television, have kicked off an ambitious online game called Gold Rush, which they hope will become a national sensation somewhat on a par with the one Mr. Burnett created six years ago with the “Survivor” series.

The game, which started yesterday, promises to give away $100,000 in gold twice a week for seven weeks, and will culminate in a $1 million contest. Mr. Burnett said the initial online traffic “surpassed expectations,” though he did not give figures.

In the game, online contestants answer pop-culture questions until they reach a 13th level. Then the first three who answer correctly receive plane tickets to a series of cities where Mr. Burnett will produce an online game show to determine the winner.

Even as he introduces Gold Rush, Mr. Burnett continues to deal with criticism of his decision to divide the teams by race in the new season of “Survivor.” The first show is tonight on CBS. Mr. Burnett defended his race-based teams, which have been criticized by ethnic and community groups as a ratings stunt, as a way to increase the diversity among reality series.

“I hope the people who are criticizing what we've done without even seeing it will be applauding us in the end,” he said in a telephone interview. This season, “Survivor” will have four teams: one black, one white, one Hispanic and one Asian-American. Mr. Burnett said the show would never go back to its former makeup, which consisted of “one or two token people of color” in a cast of 16.

“I think we now need to have completely diverse casts,” he said, adding that he is comfortable with how the show, which has finished production, turned out as it unfolded over 14 episodes.

While the continuing success of “Survivor” remains critical to his company, Mark Burnett Productions, Mr. Burnett said Gold Rush represented a new outlet for what is increasingly a multimedia company rather than one focused on television.

Michael Wolfson, chief creative director for AOL, said Gold Rush has several additional wrinkles, including allowing players to compete against friends (using their AOL instant-message buddy lists).

“The game vivifies the entire value of the Web,” Mr. Wolfson said. “The pop culture orientation ties in two of the biggest behaviors that drive the Web: gaming and interest in celebrities.”

AOL, which is making the game universally available on the Web at www.goldrush.aol.com, also expects to benefit. “It's a free service,” Mr. Burnett said, “so AOL will reach many more people who will get to sample its services. And AOL also gets exposed to different advertisers.”

Indeed, Mr. Wolfson said AOL was also attracted to Mr. Burnett's ability to strike creative deals with advertisers. Gold Rush has five main advertisers — Coca-Cola, Best Buy, Washington Mutual, Chevrolet and T-Mobile — and many of the locations for the game show parts of the contest have been chosen to tie in with those advertisers, Mr. Wolfson said, including trips to Coca-Cola's headquarters in Atlanta and Chevrolet's Detroit headquarters.

One other partner, CBS, may also see some special benefits. Some clues for the quiz questions will be embedded in CBS shows, including “Survivor,” and that is expected to bolster viewership. In addition, if the game takes off, the finale will pit the winners of each week's contests in a final contest that CBS has the right to televise.

Mr. Burnett emphasized that the project does not represent a reduction of his company's commitment to television productions. “There is still no better way of reaching eyeballs than network TV,” he said.

But Gold Rush will join a roster from Burnett Productions that now includes other reality series, music recording and touring, boxing promotion, television syndication and a film production division.

In prime-time television, Mr. Burnett produces “The Apprentice” for NBC and expects a new edition of the show, which features Donald Trump, to appear after the new year.

His “Rock Star” series concluded a second summer run on CBS last night, repeating much of the success of the original with viewers much younger than CBS usually attracts. It also is the source for the music division’s album releases, which will soon be up to four, and the touring bookings, including a Las Vegas date for the winner of the latest contest.

“The Contender,” a boxing reality series for ESPN, is also wrapping up a second season in the next two weeks; Mr. Burnett expects a third and will also be making more matches for the fighters in the series. And he is the early production stages of “On the Lot,' a reality series based on moviemaking (produced with Steven Spielberg). It is set to air on the Fox network this winter.

Mr. Burnett also entered the syndication business last year with “The Martha Stewart Show” in daytime, and plans to offer a second show for next fall, starring the British self-help author Peter McKenna.

Mr. Burnett has a second online game ready, timed to be played in conjunction with the Dreamworks film “Flushed Away,” starting in November.

Recently, he bought the film rights to a coming series of children's novels by the Irish writer Michael Scott, called “The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.” Random House will publish the first of the series, “The Alchemyst,” in May.

Mr. Burnett described the series, which centers on two teenagers in contemporary San Francisco and a 600-year-old man with dark enemies, as “The Lord of the Rings meets Harry Potter.”