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Digital Media
Rushing To The Web
Evan Hessel, 11.22.06, 2:00 PM ET

Producer Mark Burnett created Survivor for CBS in 2000, sparking primetime television's reality revolution. In January, Time Warner's AOL hired Burnett in to produce Gold Rush, a treasure hunt-themed reality series designed exclusively for the Internet. In just two months, Gold Rush notched 12 million viewers, making it one of the first professionally produced Web hits. Burnett spoke to Forbes.com from his Malibu, Calif., home.

Forbes.com: How did Gold Rush come together? Was it a TV show idea that you adapted for the Web?

Burnett: No. I never thought of it as a TV show. I always knew it was an Internet game.

I took Gold Rush to all the major Web portals: Yahoo!, [Microsoft's] MSN, AOL, Google. AOL's technical team impressed me and convinced my they could handle the massive traffic the game would create.

Lots of successful television producers are trying to create hit Web shows. (See " Web-Hit Wonders.") How much of Gold Rush's success is due to its interactive nature?

It's the whole thing. People wouldn't be there if it was just a one-way discussion. That already exists. It's called broadcast television.

Look, after doing Web projects enhancing my TV shows, we realized that people want two things: They want short-form content, and they don't want it to be linear. They have to be able to pick what they watch and for how long.

We designed Gold Rush to have all these questions as funny skits, like "What's the name of Paris Hilton's dog?" You can watch them in any combination and play whenever you want. On average, people spend 20 minutes playing.

The game is a casting process for the on-camera show. Top scorers get a call from [host] Mark Steines ,and then we fly them to some place to compete on-camera.

What's brilliant is on Monday, a guy is playing at home and by Sunday, he's holding a solid gold bar.

What video content on the Web impresses you?

YouTube. It's the YouTube universe. Millions of users producing their own content. It's brilliant.

What about professionally produced content?

Television people are just getting started on the Web. You know, I don't want to say I'm impressed with my own work, but Gold Rush impresses me. The model works. We had 12 million players, 107 million page views. If the game was on TV with those numbers, it would be one of the top 20 shows.

In terms of advertisers, we got [Coca-Cola's] Coke Zero, Washington Mutual, T-Mobile, CBS. Those are some serious brands. AOL and I benefit from the ad sales.

How did the CBS tie-ins work?

A certain number of the clues require you to watch CBS. Networks are having a harder and harder time promoting their shows, and Gold Rush sent players back to CBS. So they, in turn, heavily promoted Gold Rush on-air.

I love the fact that I was able to give CBS a boost. I got my start there producing Survivor. Now, I read these things saying that people aren't watching How I Met Your Mother. So we include it in Gold Rush, and now viewers are coming back.

Would you work on another Web series?

I'm going to do tons more of it, starting with a second season of Gold Rush. I love it.

I've already filed all my patents for this Web game stuff. Can you imagine if I got patents for a weekly elimination on a reality show? Everyone copied me after Survivor.

I didn't know you could patent that.

Of course you can. Then the networks would have to pay me even more. (Laughs.)

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