Every few years, Mark Burnett clicks with the right show at the right time.
The British-born producer, renowned for bringing the reality genre to mainstream television with Survivor in 2000, is currently riding a wave of success with his talent-search series The Voice, which has steadily climbed in popularity since launching three weeks ago. In the United States, The Voice increased in ratings by 10 per cent for its second episode. In Canada, the audience jumped by 13 per cent in the second week. This sort of breakout frenzy rarely occurs in network television, but it has happened several times before with a Burnett show.
Born in London's East End to working-class parents, Burnett enlisted in the British army as a teenager and fought in the parachute regiment during the Falklands War. Soon after, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he spent a few years working as a nanny/bodyguard for wealthy families.
In 1995, Burnett shifted his sights toward television with Eco-Challenge, a televised event in which teams of four competed in a rugged adventure race. A few years later, he created Survivor, then followed with The Restaurant, The Apprentice, The Casino and Rock Star. In recent years, he has also created the unscripted programs Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader, On the Lot, Amne$ia and Shark Tank.
Bypassing the extended American Idol audition process, the format of The Voice dictates that contestant warblers are heard but not seen by the celebrity panel composed of Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green, who thereafter act as "coaches," not judges.
Burnett spoke to us by phone from Los Angeles last week.
Any parallels between your previous singer-search series Rock Star and The Voice?
Rock Star was great fun. It was fun to make and to watch. I was looking forward to having that sort of experience again, but this is obviously much broader and goes across so many musical genres. As indicated by the successful ratings so far, this show appeals to a broader range of viewers.
How did you settle on the celebrity coaching panel?
I felt it was important to cover the spectrum of music today. From the beginning, the only female singer I wanted was Christina Aguilera. I had worked with Christina previously when she appeared on the MTV Movie Awards, and we connected. Once she heard how the show worked and the fact we wouldn't be giving her people to critique that were bad, as a comedy, she was sold. The same went for Adam, Blake and Cee Lo.
The premiere of The Voice featured a performance by controversial American Idol reject Frenchie Davis. Is the door open for future Idol castoffs?
Where it's organic and appropriate. In the end, what matters is: Can you really sing and perform and deal with this big stage and the experience? I've got an obligation to the audience and the coaches to provide the very best. There's no reason to discriminate in terms of age, or someone who's tried before, and not give them another chance. I think it's the right thing to do.
To where do your own music tastes run?
I absolutely love Kings of Leon. They appeared on the MTV Movie Awards for me. I love Van Morrison; I've seen him multiple times. I am a massive, massive Pearl Jam fan. If I had the time, I would fly anywhere at any moment to see Pearl Jam. They're off the hook. Another band I'm obsessed with is Foo Fighters. I could watch them play for 24 hours straight.
No British bands on your list?
I would say that the favourite concert of my life was in 2002, when I flew to London with my 16-year-old son to see Led Zeppelin. John Bonham's son played drums. It was unbelievable. We didn't sit down for two hours straight.
What other TV projects do you have on the go?
I just finished filming a series called Expedition Impossible for ABC. We're in post-production right now for a summer delivery. It's ordinary people sent off on an extraordinary adventure. There's little tinges of Eco-Challenge in it, but these people are not trained adventurers. It's just really fun television.
Do you hold fond memories of shooting the first official season of Eco-Challenge in British Columbia back in 1996?
I'm so pro-Canadian, because my career really took off with Eco-Challenge in Whistler. Many of the crew on Expedition Impossible are Canadians and so is the host [Dave Salmoni] I have so many Canadians who work for me and they're absolutely brilliant people. I've put my life in their hands so many times. I love Canada.
This interview has been condensed and edited.