Having taken camera crews around the world in "Survivor" and his "Eco-Challenge" series, reality guru Mark Burnett focuses on Africa in his new series "Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone," which premieres this weekend on The History Channel. In the adventure series, four explorers - Benedict Allen, Mireya Mayor, Pasquale Scaturro and Kevin Sites - relive the perilous nine-month journey of American Journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who, in 1871, was sent by the New York Herald to find missing explorer Dr. David Livingstone. The explorers in Burnett's series will follow Stanley's same path as they journey through the wilds of Tanzania. Burnett talked one-on-one with our Jim Halterman about the perils in his latest production, whether snakes or water proved to be more treacherous on the journey as well as how he thinks the Emmy categories for reality series should be revamped.
Jim Halterman: Can you talk about the beginnings of "Expedition Africa" and how it landed on the History Channel?
Mark Burnett: It came out of a meeting that we had with Nancy Dubuc, [Executive VP/General Manager at the History Channel] who asked us what we could come up with that would be adventurous, have unexpected drama but would also have its roots in history so it would actually match the same brand. We went away, developed and came back with them and had the full development of this series, which really stands on its own as an unscripted drama of four people trying to go on a 1000-mile journey with limited resources and can they make it? There's three touch points to this. The vicarious travel experience in Africa is a great unscripted drama with four strong characters who all want to be in charge and then, of course, it's all rooted in its historical journey. All of those are a great experience so you can enjoy all three - a vicarious travel experience with drama and learn about history. You can just be involved in the history and enjoy that. Or you can just be involved with the drama. The three touch points work separately and together.
JH: Would you say it's an accurate statement that all the research in the world cannot fully prepare you for this expedition in the show?
MB: Absolutely true. The research gives you some knowledge and gives you a sense of what could go wrong and what to expect but in the end on the ground is what really counts. You have to be flexible and, like "Survivor," you're dealing with nature in the raw and you have to be very, very flexible. As you know, I've done 31 of these kinds of outdoor shows and the 32nd one is "Expedition Africa." My team and myself have a good sense of �Don't freak out when something goes wrong. Keep covering it, keep safety in front of your mind but be very, very flexible' and that's what it really takes. I would say to you probably had I not had that vast experience with adventure programming I don't think Nancy would have trusted us to go off and do this. She felt confident enough and the result we're so proud of. I really love this series.
JH: You've talked about the importance of story in your series. With "Expedition Africa," outside of the journey itself, do we get the individual stories of the explorers and get to know them well in the course of the show?
MB: You get to know them really well and their stories are revealed through their actions in the show. We don't do back stories and try to tell their own lives back in England or back in America. Instead, we reveal their character and the dynamics of who they are through their interaction with each other. You should know that with my style of shooting, these four explorers didn't even meet each other and didn't know who each other were until they met on the British continent in Zanzibar with cameras rolling. Their first meeting is real and then a day later they have to go on a 1000-mile journey and while they learn about each other the audience learns about them. Also, my style of shooting is that the cameramen and producers are not allowed to speak to the explorers in any of our shows except for interview times so there is no discussion. There's no communing with the subject matter which keeps it real. If they run out of water, they run out of water. We're only going to help them if they're on the edge of death. They have to solve their own problems. Obviously, this group of people was very tough and wanted to solve their own problems.
JH: In the first episode the explorers talk about which could be the bigger complication - water or snakes? Which is it?
MB: I think water is a big through line. But I think the factors... snakes were a huge factor, water was a huge factor and not getting lost was a huge factor and I'll also say that there's a big factor in lions and crocodiles. In episode three you'll see huge lion issues. And in other episodes there are huge crocodile issues in the rivers when they need to try to get water out of the river.
JH: Stanley's nine-month journey is condensed down to 30-days for the show. Was that a decision made for production issues?
MB: There's no way that we could take a crew to Africa and put that on an affordable budget. It's the same reason "Survivor" is only 39 days. Clearly, if we did six months we'd get more stories but it's not possible.
JH: Talking about the explorers, right from the get-go, Pasquale clearly wants to gain control of the group and really stirs the pot. Do you think a character like his is vital for these kinds of shows?
MB: We didn't know he'd be that way. All we did was choose interesting, capable characters who are all, in their own right, leaders. You don't know until you're on the ground. You can never predict how they're going to behave from the casting and anybody that tells you they do it that way they're lying. There's no way to know from the interviews and casting how someone is going to behave when you're out there in the world and the pressure is on. In this case, Pasquale ended up being the leader from the front. He's always been a leader and he appointed himself a leader and that's because he is.
JH: Through the course of the expedition, did the explorers become closer or split apart.
MB: I think what happened is that they were sizing themselves up in the beginning and then they really split apart and then towards the end they came together realizing the importance of the journey that they just went through. It's hard and when you see the ending of this it's hard to not feel heart warmed. They've really achieved something spectacular. 1000 miles.
JH: In general, why do you think audiences are turning to reality more than ever? "Survivor" beat out "CSI" in the ratings for the first time this season.
MB: I don't think that the unscripted stuff will ever replace dramas and comedies. I really don't believe that. I think they will coexist. But I feel there is something accessible and relatable to seeing real people in real situations. In the broad sense, I think non-fiction is here to stay as a really healthy form of entertainment.
JH: When the Emmys created the reality category a few years ago, was that a form of validation for the genre?
MB: It's a validation but, to be honest, the categories don't make sense. You've got "American Idol" and "Survivor" in the same category. On the one hand, one talent show, one elimination drama and then you've got "Extreme Home Makeover," which also should be in a different category. I want to be clear. What I've said is valid and I stand by it but I'm also grateful that the Academy is on the right path but they do need to go further and they do need to create new categories. The three types of shows are competition shows like "The Amazing Race" and "Survivor" and "The Bachelor" should be in the same category. "Dancing With The Stars" and "American Idol" should be in the same category. I feel like shows like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" should be in another category.
JH: Is there anything that you have yet to accomplish with your reality shows or have you covered everything you've wanted to cover?
MB: There are a number of things I want to do. I've been focusing on and trying to do encouraging uplifting shows. "Shark Tank" got picked up by ABC, which is very encouraging because there are entrepreneurs who try to raise money and investors on the show who actually have cash to invest. There are a lot of uplifting things and that's really been my focus. One thing that I'd really love to do is I really want to have a successful scripted show on TV. It's something I'd like to do. In the end it's all about the storytelling and I'd like to try that.
"Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone" premieres Sunday at 10:00/9:00c on the History Channel.