Mark Burnett hunts for online gold
The maverick behind "Survivor" hopes to reinvent reality TV online - starting with a $2 million prize.
SAN FRANCISCO (Business 2.0 Magazine) -- After creating the reality television megahit "Survivor," producer Mark Burnett is trying to prove that he has a golden touch on the Web as well.
Beginning this Wednesday, Mark Burnett Productions and AOL will launch "Gold Rush," an online series of contests that will give away more than $2 million in gold hidden across America.
Each week, aspiring contestants will be forced to seek out and assemble a dozen clues pointing to a cache's hiding place. The first three to correctly guess its location will be whisked away to compete against each other for $100,000; a dozen winners will then reconvene at the end for a shot at another million.
With a big cash prize at stake, Burnett's first Web effort sounds like pure money. But he's also got a reputation to burnish: TV ventures with Martha Stewart have flopped, and more recently, Burnett has courted controversy by dividing the tribes of this season's "Survivor" along ethnic lines.
Burnett intends to mine 10 hours of online video from the "Gold Rush" contests to stream exclusively at AOL.com. His stated goal is to create original programming that drives online viewers to AOL. The online service has just bet its business on growing advertising revenue, but doesn't have much more enticing content on offer than reruns of "Spenser: For Hire" on its In2TV Web site.
Burnett's personal agenda is much more brazen: He's aiming to prove that, in a hopelessly fragmented media market, it's still possible to put a mass audience together.
To do that, he's melding a popular TV-show format, the game show, with a hot online phenomenon - the massively multiplayer videogame. In the language of Hollywood pitches, it's "The Price Is Right " meets "World of Warcraft."
The clues to the location of the hidden gold are essentially run-of-the-mill pop trivia. They'll be hidden inside mainstream media properties, beginning with AOL itself and CBS (Charts), which has signed on as the show's broadcast TV partner and may air a two-hour television special if the series takes off.
The result is promotional synergy at its finest - expect to see a "Gold Rush" clue in the "Survivor" premiere this Thursday, to hear one on CBS Radio's "Opie & Anthony," and to read them in Time Inc. magazines. (Time Inc., the publisher of Business 2.0, CNNMoney.com and AOL are owned by Time Warner (Charts).)
Online, Burnett's company and AOL have been busy deploying blogs on the "Gold Rush" Web site in hopes of building an audience of game obsessives who will post blow-by-blow reports and videos of their efforts to find the gold.
In effect, Burnett has built a media property designed to funnel the fragmented, disaffected, participatory online audience right back to the old media giants they're busy avoiding - and they all have plans to make money in the process.
AOL reaps revenue from advertising and sponsorships - as AOL CEO Jon Miller recently noted to Business 2.0, online video now commands rates similar to cable TV.
CBS, meanwhile, plans to leverage the "Gold Rush" audience into fodder for its own media properties. Winners will turn up on "The Early Show" and the CBS-produced "Entertainment Tonight," for example.
And expect Burnett - being Burnett - to pack the game to the gills with product placement. Chevrolet cars and trucks will drive contestants to competitions and cart around the gold, while T-Mobile cell phones, bottles of Coca-Cola Zero, Best Buy stores and Washington Mutual ATMs will play some role in the mix.
The real fun, though, will be in seeing whether Burnett has a firm grasp on the dynamics of online games. Burnett, in an interview with Business 2.0, insists that his real talent rests in designing games, not making TV shows. "Gold Rush" will put that claim to the test.
How will AOL executives react, for example, if a cabal of "game wizards," as Burnett puts it, pool their brainpower to corner the contestant slots during one competition? Will people tune in online if the match is virtually fixed?
That's the key question, of course: Can Burnett's digital wizardry stimulate a critical mass of interest (and pageviews) on AOL's "Gold Rush" site? Will the show, in other words, become a genuine viral phenomenon, or will the online audience see it as tainted by its corporate association?
Burnett concedes that it will take time to educate the mainstream audience, but "Gold Rush" is also serving as an educational experience for Burnett as well. His production company has already announced its next online venture: creating tie-in games for the forthcoming DreamWorks Animation movie "Flushed Away." And next time, he won't have the benefit of cash prizes.
Burnett spoke to Business 2.0 about the challenges he faces in launching "Gold Rush." Excerpts from the interview follow:
Gold Rush is your first foray onto the Web. Why now?
I've been thinking about this for seven years. The difference between now and seven years ago is a shift in media consumption. There are more people on broadband connections from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. than there are watching TV at night, right? If that's the true primetime, the question becomes: what to do with it?
Three minutes of content seemed totally manageable for a work environment, and it had to be nonlinear, so it would work on your schedule. I thought of a treasure hunt - "Go to AOL.com and unravel the clues to find gold!" - and then I thought of ways to involve radio, television, magazines, music and film. Why not embed the clues in episodes of "CSI" or Red Hot Chili Pepper lyrics or even editorial content in Entertainment Weekly or TV Guide?
You're inventing a new format: the massively multiplayer reality show. Are you worried about not having control over casting for the first time?
I think it's better this way. I think people are sick of casting. We'll find the stories - the little old lady in Wisconsin who thinks she knows better than anyone, even though she spends her days digging holes in a national park.
We're actively encouraging people to create videos of themselves and to create blogs, and each $100,000 winner is guaranteed to go on the "Early Show" and "Entertainment Tonight." Once people start winning, it will start growing.
I was surprised to see a partnership between AOL and CBS considering how these media giants are all chasing after the online audience.
Well, [CBS CEO] Les Moonves heard our pitch and he just got it. This is a unique way to build an audience - why not accept AOL's promotion of your shows and sending its viewers to your properties? I was very skeptical that each of these large vertical companies would open up to each other, but they have.
"Gold Rush" is part of AOL CEO Jon Miller's plan to get back into the game.To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.