AOL, Burnett beat Yahoo! to online hunt skein

The race is on to bow the first big-budget event series for the Web.

Just a couple of weeks after it was revealed that Yahoo! is developing an Internet version of former ABC reality project “The Runner” with Mark Burnett attached (Daily Variety, Jan. 16), the “Survivor”-meister has sold real-world reality project “Gold Rush!,” in which Netizens will be invited to search for treasure around the country via clues hidden on AOL.com and other media partners.

But AOL might not be alone in its bid to get the online world searching for clues.

Yahoo! has been developing its own treasure-hunting project for the past year, people familiar with the situation said. What’s more, NBC long ago began filming its own take on the genre, an Imagine Television skein dubbed “Treasure Hunters” that’s set to bow in the summer.

A rep for Yahoo! declined comment when asked whether the Netco was developing its own treasure-themed online project.

Burnett said he’s not familiar with Yahoo!’s plans — even though he’s been developing “The Runner” for the portal — and insists “Gold Rush!” is “uniquely mine.”

“You hear all sorts of rumors. I don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “I have a fully created, workable concept and a theme.”

For “Gold Rush!,” Time Warner-owned Netco will create regular video episodes culled from footage at treasure locations that will air on AOL.com and possibly with a partner TV net.

“Gold Rush!” will hide clues for the location of hidden treasure throughout AOL’s Web properties including AOL.com, AOL Instant Messenger, Moviefone.com, and MapQuest.

AOL will finance the program, with support from media partners.

Skein will be far and away the biggest original production for AOL since it relaunched itself as a Web portal with a focus on video content last year.

AOL has been talking with Burnett for a while about working together on original projects. Netco quickly bought “Gold Rush!” after he pitched it, and a deal was signed over the weekend.

“We fully expect to have television, print and radio partners, but the primary medium for the video experience will be on AOL.com” said Kevin Conroy, exec VP of AOL Media Networks, who made the deal for the Netco. “This is the right idea for us to build on our momentum, and we’ll only be focused on one project of this scope at a time.”

“The Runner,” which originated in 2001 with Live Planet, is still in development, while “Gold Rush!” has a greenlight and is set to launch on AOL by mid- to-late 2006.

Burnett said he hasn’t spoken to Yahoo! media topper Lloyd Braun about “Gold Rush!,” but he didn’t see a conflict between that project and “The Runner.”

“One’s about trying to track down an escaped CIA operative. Another is a treasure hunt in which you’re looking for real gold,” he said, adding he looks at the various online giants the same way he approaches TV networks.

“I’ve got ‘Survivor’ and ‘Rock Star’ on CBS and ‘The Apprentice’ on NBC,” he added.

He said he’s not surprised multiple outlets would be working on treasure-themed skeins, given the success of “The DaVinci Code.”

“It’s in the consciousness,” he said. “There will be many of these kinds of things.”

As for attracting auds, Burnett said he believes 9 to 5 could rep a sort of new primetime for Web-based content, given the number of workers with high-speed connections.

“In the old days, making a personal call from work was a cardinal sin,” he said. “These days, those sorts of personal communications happen all the time. People are instant messaging with friends, they’re tracking their stocks. The premise I have is that there are more people watching (the Internet) from 9 to 5 than are watching TV from 8 to 11.”

AOL and Burnett are hoping to attract something close to the 5 million viewers the Netco drew for its webcast of the Live 8 concerts last summer.

“Gold Rush!” is expected to have a “Da Vinci Code”-like feel to it, Burnett said, with clues to the treasure “hidden in plain sight.” David Shugarts, author of the DaVinci-centric “Secrets of the Widow’s Son,” is onboard as an exec consultant.

Burnett said he plans to bring the same sort of production values seen in his TV shows to the Net.

“The show’s going to start with a big visual opening, with these trucks full of gold leaving to be buried,” he said.

Value of the prizes will progress, with the final cache of gold worth $1 million. There will also be smaller prizes for players who don’t want to actually dig up buried gold.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more