NBC takes reality idea into orbit

Burnett to launch one contestant to Mir

The Peacock’s planning a 2001 space odyssey with “Survivor” exec producer Mark Burnett.

NBC has agreed to shell out nearly $40 million for the rights to “Destination Mir,” an ambitious reality skein that will launch an everyday American into space for a rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. Show will follow a group of would-be cosmonauts from space camp to launch pad over 13-15 episodes, culminating with a dramatic live broadcast in which a winner is picked — and then almost immediately sent into space.

As part of the pact, NBC will share a significant portion of its advertising revenue with Burnett.

All Big Four webs had expressed serious interest in the project, but NBC’s offer most closely matched the terms being requested by Burnett. Several webs balked at the idea of sharing ad revenue with Burnett.

“We went out there simultaneously to all the networks and there were varied levels of response,” he said. “The NBC response was extremely close to what we asked. If we go out and ask for a price and someone comes back and basically says yes, it’s a deal.”

The $35 million-$40 million pricetag includes the nearly $20 million for space preparation and transportation that Burnett will pay to MirCorp., a Russian company that has leased the use of the space station from the RSC Energia (the private firm that now controls what was once the Soviet space program).

“The reason I got excited about this was that I know this is the ultimate project for Mark. This was a project where his eyes lit up,” said NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier.

“With every network buying reality shows, including us, this was something that took (the genre) to the next level,” he added. “It’s a completely original idea. Nobody else is going to do another space shot.”

Deal will no doubt quiet critics (including some inside NBC) who’ve accused the Peacock of being too slow to jump into the nonscripted game.

NBC hasn’t scheduled the series yet, though Ancier said fall 2001 is a target for the debut, with the actual launch taking place in late 2001 or early 2002. MirCorp. has agreed to a launch window between December 2001 and June 2002.

As part of the deal, NBC has agreed to air an hourlong Burnett-produced docu on Dennis Tito, a businessman who’s paid $20 million to fly to the Russian space station.

“Mir” will begin with a two-hour episode in which around a dozen Americans gather at Star City, the Russian space training center located just outside Moscow.

“I see the show opening by dramatically taking our civilian Americans and taking them into the restricted area for first time and realizing that they’re in for a hell of a ride,” Burnett said.

Series will then follow the would-be astronauts through space boot camp, with one participant eliminated every week by Russian space officials (not other civilians). The live two-hour conclusion will gather several finalists on a launch pad, where the winner will be announced — and then immediately climb aboard a Soyuz space capsule for the trip to Mir.

Although the details are still being worked out, Burnett said NBC will continue to follow the 10-day flight even after the winner is sent up.

“America will want to see the person in the launch vehicle, orbiting earth, entering Mir and coming back,” he said.

Burnett said he’d apply the same kind of “Survivor” production values to “Mir.”

“I’m only interested in producing that kind of quality,” he said. “This is what gets me up in morning. There are a number of ways to make it very dramatic and watchable.”

Cosmic democracy

Burnett hopes “Mir” will bring a little democracy to the process of choosing who gets to fly beyond the friendly skies.

“Part of my goal is to be actively involved as I get older with Mir and the privatization effort,” he said. “These people are serious. They’re meeting with hotel chains. People are starting to realize space isn’t that far away.”

Selecting the right participants is key, Burnett said. The final winner won’t necessarily be obvious, he said. “It isn’t the strongest, youngest or fittest necessarily,” he said. “The Russians are looking for the most balanced one — the person who has ‘the right stuff.’ It sounds hokey because of that movie but it’s true. It may be the person officials think is not going to freak out.”

Beware of danger

Although Burnett admits that space remains dangerous, he doesn’t believe the show poses any more risk than “Survivor” or “EcoChallenge.”

“I don’t believe it’s any more dangerous than ‘Survivor,’ ” he said. “When you saw Richard pick up a snake, that was a crazy move. He might have died. ‘EcoChallenge’ every year is completely dangerous. If you want to deal with true adventure, you can’t totally remove the danger from the experience.”

Participants will sign insurance waivers before space camp begins. MirCorp. also is insured through Lloyd’s of London.

What will make “Mir” so compelling, Burnett believes, is the wish-fulfillment quality behind it. “My show is about giving that chance to a very ordinary American,” he said. “This actually will be very important in the next 18 months … and I will personally play a part in bringing ordinary people to space.”

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