Survivor 15th anniversary: Mark Burnett on the show that changed TV
Whether you love unscripted television or consider it the downfall of western civilization, you can pinpoint the exact date when the broadcast landscape changed forever: Fifteen years ago today—May 31, 2000. That’s when a bold new reality TV experiment named Survivor debuted on CBS—16 individuals stranded on an island in Borneo for 39 days, voting each other out one by one until only two remained. One of those two would be voted the winner of $1 million.
51.7 million people watched Richard Hatch defeat Kelly Wiglesworth to take home that million-dollar prize. (He later went to prison for not paying taxes on his winnings, while she will be playing again on next season’s Survivor: Cambodia—Second Chance.) In honor of the 15th anniversary of Survivor’s debut, we chatted with the man who made it all happen, executive producer Mark Burnett, to get his memories of that transformative summer as well as his thoughts on how long the show might go on.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me what it was like out there, filming that first season of Survivor—doing something so new and different with the potential to be either a huge hit or a huge flop.
MARK BURNETT: Because it was so early in my career, I was just grateful to make it and live this big dream of adventure. And I loved that it was something brand new and there were no metrics to compare it to. Clearly, most people thought it might just do okay and might not be a big embarrassment. On the other hand, maybe no one is going to watch it! No one really knew. I had the edit teams on the island. I learned that on Eco-Challenge—bring the editors along with us. So I had them in these corrugated iron huts, and they were editing it together. I remember one night they showed me and the crew the first 20 minutes, and I was like “Wow, it’s amazing!”
I had a few journalists visiting the next week and without permission from CBS—because I really didn’t think it through—I showed the journalists the first 20 minutes. They were like “Whoa, it’s amazing. I was not expecting this.” I remember getting a call from CBS and they were like, “What are you doing? How could you show journalists without going through the proper channels?” And I said, “I just got excited.” Next day I got a call from them saying “The journalists loved it. That was a really great move.” And I was like, “It wasn’t really a move at all. I was just excited! I was just wanting to share it.”
That’s the moment where I really knew. It’s one thing making it and being in the moment of the actual live game on the island, and loving it and working really hard. It’s a whole other thing how it edits together, and what the embodiment is on the screen. And to show it to pretty tough journalists who have been there, seen it, done it, and they were like, “Whoa, we thought we were going to be watching The Real World. This is like a movie,” was amazing. And obviously the rest is history. Here we are having just finished season 30.
And even after the giant success of the first season, you didn’t think the show would last that long, did you?
I have to tell you, season 3 was about to start. I remember being with [President of CBS] Leslie Moonves at TCA, and I was going up an escalator and I remember saying to him, “Leslie, it’s hard to believe we’re here to present the journalists season 3! Who knew?” He looked at me really seriously and said, “You’ll be doing season 23.” And I went “Yeah, right!” And he said, “No, this thing has legs.” Only someone with the experience of a Leslie Moonves would see that kind of longevity. I was with him again at some event six months ago and I went up to Leslie laughing and said, “Season 30, buddy!”
Do you remember where you were on the night Survivor premiered? Do you remember watching it and then starting to hear the reaction flowing in?
Yes, I remember watching it on air and the ratings coming in the next day. And it grew and grew and grew every week and became a phenomenon. Every Thursday morning, we had so many news crews at our offices wanting to talk to me about what was going on. It ended up growing into the most-watched summer show since Sonny & Cher, which was in 1973.
I left midway through the season to go make Eco-Challenge, and I remember being with Entertainment Tonight. Mark Steines was the host at the time and we were in the Borneo jungle making Eco-Challenge on the night of the finale. So I’m dealing with Eco-Challenge in the middle of the jungle and Mark comes up to me and says “I’ve got to interview you. They all want to know back home what you think about the ratings.” And I’m like “Oh, its been a great season.” And he says, “You don’t know? The finale was unbelievable. It peaked at over 70 million people! And it averaged 51 million!” I was like “WHAT?!” And that’s how I found out the ratings. So I said, “I’ve got to do something.” So I yelled out into the jungle the words “Richhhhhhhhhhhard Haaaaaaatch!!!” Because I had kept that name buried. I had not mentioned that name to anybody. Because clearly it was all shot. There was no live finale. And I obviously knew the winner. So I actually screamed that name out on camera. And finding out that many people watched it—it was a seminal moment. What a great place to be—in the Borneo jungle, finding out from ET.
How much momentum did Richard winning give the show moving forward? Obviously you would have still had great success if Kelly had won instead—and she’ll get another chance next season, ironically—but the fact that the villain won, I think, was just that much more unbelievable. It was this perfect ending that nobody could have predicted, and it gave the show an extra level of mystique.
Yeah, and also one thing we did—we start editing episode 1 and we know who has won [because they had finished filming], but we actually put into the first act of episode 1 of Survivor an interview with Richard Hatch saying, “It’s all a waste of time. I’ve already won.” He obviously didn’t know because he was sitting on the beach and it was day 2 of Survivor, but he was so confident. Many people wouldn’t have put that in because he was actually announcing that he’d won. It wasn’t just suggesting he could win; he made a definitive statement. It was so him. “Hey, this is all over. I’ve already won.” So we put that in the first act, and then it comes back. Only we on the crew knew, and we kept it.
And I remember something else from that season. The Internet did exist, but nothing like now. People were looking online trying to figure stuff out and the rumors were out there for who was going to be in the finals. We engineered a web page with CBS—as if we’d made a mistake—that actually showed the set of people in the finals. And then we took it down quickly. But people were looking so much that the rumors went out that “CBS made a mistake. They put this page up. It was an internal page that shows who is voted out next.” And it was the next two people voted out, and I think Gervase was one of them. And the fact that everyone then said, “Oh, now we know the order of the voting.” But it was false. And it then gave no one any confidence in the Internet.
I totally remember when that happened.
Think about it. It’s only a TV show. But it’s the first of its kind, so everyone is working trying to figure it out. How do we manage this? Because it’s never been done before. I mean, never ever. It was very much on the job learning. Imagine now with Twitter and all things digital. That was very much the beginning.
There was a time right after Season 12, the Exile Island season in Panama, where Jeff Probst was pretty close to leaving Survivor. Do you think the show could have continued without him?
I’m so grateful he didn’t leave. I’ve never really thought that through. Jeff is Survivor. He’s the face of Survivor and the executive producer and the showrunner, which in itself is unusual. It’s very unusual to have the star of the show also be the showrunner. But he’s done a brilliant job with it. I’m just really glad Jeff didn’t decide it was too tiring for him and too much, because I cant imagine Survivor with Jeff. Jeff is Survivor.
You said it best to me years ago, when you talked about the show and its ability to change yet also remain constant. You said how it was like a letter you get that feels familiar, with certain constants you can come to count on, yet it always is a bit different every time. And he’s really the biggest constant of the show throughout all that change.
He’s like the stationary inside the envelope. He’s the handwriting and the stationary, and it’s familiar and it’s comforting and it’s anchoring. It’s just what is written in the letter inside the envelope that changes. Jeff is even the envelope! What’s amazing now is the amount of families that are watching this, and the kids have only started watching in the past few years.
It makes me feel old because you have these contestants now who are like, “I started watching when I was 10 years old.”
It’s amazing. And it’s real family viewing and people gathering around the TV.
You said earlier how at season 3, you couldn’t believe the show was still on. Les Moonves told you that you’d be here at 23. Now you’re filming seasons 31 and 32. How much longer can Survivor go?
Survivor is stronger than ever! Remember when American Idol moved to Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and people were like “Ohhhhhhh, that could really, really hurt Survivor.” I remember saying to friends who worked on Idol and others in the business, “I don’t know. I think Idol and X-Factor before that may have made the wrong move, going up against the wrong show.” And, of course, look what happened. And now Survivor is the survivor. I think it almost doubled the American Idol finale a couple of weeks ago. It’s amazing.
Really, what the arbiter of longevity in television is, is viewership. And Survivor is not an aging show. Survivor is a show that’s useful because the audience at home watching Survivor is being replaced by younger and younger people and new fans. And then what I keep hearing all the time is how these newer fans are going back and rewatching old seasons. So Survivor has become a real binge-viewing show! You can’t name another reality show where there’s this binge-viewing thing going on. Because Survivor, in the end, is drama.
Season 1 of Survivor changed the landscape more than any other TV of the past 20 years, but it’s also interesting the way the show has evolved and changed. If you go back now and watch that first season, it’s jarring in a way. You have the narration by Jeff, you have the trunk of cash and the big gong at Tribal Council. What is it like for you—knowing what Survivor is today—to go back and watch those episodes from season 1?
It was one of the greatest times of my life. I had my kids there. To be forging a new path, forming my lifelong friendship with Jeff and many other crew members. And the fact that I had seen the island on a National Geographic documentary called The Eagle and the Snake. So I lived every moment of it. So watching that, which I do now and then, is amazing. If you look back now, you can put that first season of Survivor on now, and it’s way better than many new shows in 2015. That’s what’s really shocking about it. It still holds up. The rat and the snake.
For more ‘Survivor’ news and views, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.
Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"