In Mark Burnett's latest series, "Wedding Day," one prominent element is missing that is a common part of "Survivor" or "The Celebrity Apprentice" is good old-fashioned competition. The premise of the new TNT show is a simple one - take a deserving couple that, for one reason or another, cannot afford their dream wedding and give it to them. That's it. No eliminations, no bug eating and no challenges of endurance. Our Jim Halterman talked to Burnett about this "nice" show, how "Survivor" will always hold a special place in his heart and how it's everyone's responsibility to raise each other up.
Burnett explained that the biggest challenge with the first season of "Wedding Day" wasn't pulling off the ten weddings that occur in the first season's ten episodes but, instead, it was choosing the couples. "Not only did we need to find couples that have a compelling story so you'll really care," he said, "but you've also got to find a family that wants to contribute and roll their sleeves up and help deal with this environment." However, there was also a more logistical factor that had to be considered. "You also have to find a couple that wants to get married around the right time you can shoot." Assuming the show is a hit, Burnett sees the next season of the show as less complicated in that regard. "I think 'Wedding Day' will get even easier if we're lucky enough and if the series does well and it goes a second season because we'll be on television and there will be many more nominating couples and a lot of choices. We're really happy with the couples we have with these weddings but it took so long to sort through and make it all work."
In talking about the chosen couples and one trait they all shared, Burnett promised, "What you'll see in this series is they are real Americans. People who have given so much of themselves, in some cases because they're a cop, or firefighter or military or other times they have very challenging circumstances but they've all got that through-line of giving and serving. What it comes down to is they want to get married and they can't even afford to give a dream wedding to themselves and it's so ironic. So that was really the through-line for me and why it was important for me in making this series."
While it would seem that money is the main motivator to the contestants in "Survivor" or "Celebrity Apprentice," Burnett contends there's another element that keeps viewers interested in these types of shows. "It's storytelling," he said, "and it's the same thing with 'Wedding Day.' In 'Wedding Day,' you care about the people and you care about the stories and that's really what drives it forward. What makes it work? Do you care about the people? I have seen people that are not hamming for the cameras; they don't care about being on a TV show. They care about their love, their family and they want to get married. All we're doing is enhancing that experience for deserving people."
While Burnett repeatedly used the word "nice" to describe "Wedding Day," he wanted to make it clear that that is the kind of project he intends to be attached to down the line. "It's raise-me-up television, not tear-me-down television. I've tried to focus on doing things that raise people up and this show clearly has that "Extreme Home Makeover" vibe to it. That sort of feeling. It's hard to watch these episodes and not get a lump in your throat because these are real, deserving people. Real Americans, ya know?"
Burnett explained that even in this tough economic climate, he has already made some important fans with this brand of uplifting programming - the sponsors. "It's certainly a challenging environment right now for everybody with the economy. Because ['Wedding Day'] is so positive, sponsors want to be involved in raising-me-up or positive environment programming. It's a lot harder to get sponsors for a show that I don't tend to make but shows that have a more cynical part to them and a product doesn't want to be associated with those values."
Ask the producer about the turning point in unscripted programming and Burnett easily remembers the moment in time. "When [CBS President] Leslie Moonves said we were going to Thursday nights up against 'Friends' I said 'Are you kidding me? We're going to be the biggest flop' and he said it's going to work and, of course, we beat 'Friends.'" Despite beating "Friends" and, more recently, "Survivor" getting higher ratings than "CSI," Burnett made sure to add that he doesn't see a day when unscripted television is the only thing on the various television schedules. "I've always said something which I stand by today and that's unscripted programming, and some of it, honestly is pretty much crap but, in general, I've always believed that even the really good stuff - 'American Idol,' 'Survivor,' 'The Apprentice,' 'Extreme Home Makeover,' 'Dancing with the Stars' - good unscripted shows but there's still a need for scripted shows and news and sports to make a general lineup that appeal to the broad spectrum."
Burnett revealed that he has an at-home critic who always gives him feedback on his shows - his wife, actress Roma Downey. "My wife is a great moral compass of our family," he said, "and I like it when my wife really likes the shows and this 'Wedding Day' show, Roma liked it especially because it was taking deserving people who have done a lot for others and therefore the moral lesson of it is that by doing good you don't expect anything in return but great things happen when you do good things."
Burnett also talked about his other shows and how they each hold a warm place in his heart. "Of course, 'Survivor' is always going to be important to me because of what it stands for; it's total adventure. 'Eco-challenge' is also something that will always be close to my heart for the purity of adventure. I've had a good time making a lot of the adventure shows. I've had fun making 'Are you Smarter Than A 5th Grader' because it's so obvious to me how adults cannot do their fifth graders homework anymore. It's so stupid. You know you learned this stuff but you can't remember. Kids love it. Kids love to outdo the parents."
However, even a competition show like "Celebrity Apprentice" can set a positive example with viewers. "Piers Morgan, who won that first ['Celebrity Apprentice'], he raises a million dollars for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund for these returning heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, on the strength of the publicity of the show, a third of 56 million dollars was raised to build a center. That just shows you the positive value of media... and we all have a responsibility to raise people up and do the right thing."
"Wedding Day" premieres tonight and airs every Tuesday on TNT at 8:00/7:00c.