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Sad Realities

'On the Lot' and 'Pirate Master' were shows created by the same man who gave us 'Survivor'—so why do they seem so uninspired?

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Copyright 2007 Newsweek and
Web-Exclusive Commentary
By Joshua Alston
Updated: 5:34 p.m. ET June 16, 2007

June 15, 2007 - Donald Trump has a natural gift for spinning bad news in his favor. When his reality competition show “The Apprentice” turned up conspicuously missing from NBC's fall line-up, he immediately pounced with a statement saying that he wasn't being fired from the show, he was quitting to work on another “major new TV venture.”

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Trump's “Apprentice” business partner, reality TV's eminent creative mind Mark Burnett, will have much more trouble untangling himself from the wreckage. While his biggest franchises—“Survivor” and “The Apprentice”--effectively revolutionized television and dominated ratings in their early seasons, Burnett's recent endeavors have not yielded the same returns.

This summer, Burnett debuted two new series, “On the Lot,” on Fox, and “Pirate Master,” on CBS. “On the Lot,” an “Apprentice”-style competition with aspiring filmmakers, bowed to an audience of just 8.5 million viewers, which means it lost around 70 percent of the 30 million viewers who were watching the “American Idol” finale before it. Meanwhile, “Pirate Master,” a watered-down “Survivor” clone, in which greedy gamers stow away at sea for a crack at a million-dollar prize, fared just as badly. Only 7 million viewers tested the waters.

But Burnett's ratings woes aren't the issue as much as what appears to be a dearth of creative ideas. “On the Lot” started out trying to mimic “The Apprentice,” then abruptly changed course and started aping “American Idol,” complete with separate performance-and-results show. Somewhere in all the confusion, the show's host changed abruptly and one of its judges, director Brett Ratner, vanished without any explanation. Meanwhile, the “Pirate Master” debut was a confusing muddle. For at least the first 45 minutes, it was impossible to know who was doing what and why. Characters were introduced hastily so they could be rushed through a baffling challenge, then someone whose name you could remember was “cut adrift.” (That means “voted off the island,” but the boat version.)

The sad part of Burnett's string of failures is that it suggests that it nails shut the coffin of reality television's golden era. There has always been lots of talk about the negative effect of reality TV and how it has contributed to our fame-obsessed, look-at-me culture. But there hasn't been nearly enough discussion about the fact that at its best, some of the freshest, most exciting television of the past decade has been reality-based. Who among us can forget where we were the first time we saw Richard Hatch flopping around nude during the first season of “Survivor”? How many office friendships were irreparably damaged by Jordin vs. Blake disagreements during “American Idol”? 

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