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Burnett is reality TV survivor


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High-stakes storylines have made shows such as "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" hits for Mark Burnett.

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Mark Burnett
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(CNN) -- He's got America by the eyeballs, captivating viewers each week with his fanatic-friendly version of reality TV.

Mark Burnett is the creator of the colossal hit television shows "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," which each regularly pull in 20 million viewers.

"They are unscripted dramas," Burnett explained. "... Whether it is the cavemen in the caves thousands of years ago, Shakespeare plays, television, movies and books, stories and characters take us on a journey. All I do is tell those stories without scripts and without actors."

The high-stakes storylines featured in many of these shows -- be they played out by adventure-seekers marooned in far-off locales or would-be business tycoons pursuing a dream job -- parallel some of Burnett's own atypical, high-risk life decisions.

Burnett grew up in a working-class neighborhood of inner city London. As a teen, he eschewed a 9-to-5 job and instead enlisted in the British military as a paratrooper.

In 1982, Burnett was shipped to the South Atlantic Ocean to fight Argentine forces in the Falklands War, in which 250 UK soldiers died while retaking the windswept islands.

Soon after he and his comrades came home as heroes, Burnett again sought out adventure across the Atlantic -- this time, in the United States.

"I had no money, no green card, no nothing," Burnett remembered about his arrival in Los Angeles, California. "The only job I could get was [as] a live-in person, doing something like a chauffeur or something. [But] there were no chauffeur jobs.

"The only job available ... was a nanny. So I went from commando to nanny in 24 hours. Unbelievable."

Later, the commando-turned-nanny mastered his marketing skills by selling T-shirts on Venice Beach, among other sales jobs.

"I learned in America that Americans are into results. Americans don't care where you came from, what your family did, what school you graduated from," he said. "They care about if you can deliver the results. That's what makes America the country it is."

By the mid-1990s, Burnett combined his marketing savvy with his love of adventure to create his first television success -- the Eco-Challenge games, a multisport endurance competition staged in international locations.

He later wagered his money on the U.S. broadcast rights to an European television show called "Survivor," which dispatched contestants to isolated locales and pitted them against one another in a series of physical and psychological challenges. It was a good bet.

Many reality shows have come and gone since producers stranded the first "Survivor" contestants in 2000, but Burnett has proven he can outlast, outwit and outplay his rivals.

Every year since its premiere, "Survivor" has won the People's Choice Award for favorite reality show. It has also been nominated 14 times for an Emmy, winning twice. Now in its eighth edition, "Survivor" continues to rank in Nielsen's top 10, regularly jockeying with Burnett's other mega hit, the Donald Trump-helmed "The Apprentice."

"Survivor is outlasting all the unscripted shows [because of] storytelling and character. ... 'The Apprentice' will go eight, nine seasons," Burnett predicted. "People ... try and do stunt TV, [but] it's short lived," he added, emphasizing that a reality show's success depends on "story, story, story."

The public remote control says Burnett knows a good story; maybe it's simply because he's living one. For proof, one need look no further than one of his next television ventures, slated to start filming this spring -- "Commando Nanny."


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