Even star Producer fumbling

The major networks are in the midst of a disheartening ratings run as they close the books on the 2006-07 season and gird for ’07-08 — with the phrase “all-time-low” becoming the most frequent modifier applied to many hit shows.

To which we say, in a voice filled as much with trepidation as hope, “Mark Burnett, where are you?”

Burnett, the producer with the colorful military pedigree and British accent, has done more than almost anyone to keep the “network” in network television during this decade. Helping midwife the modern incarnation of reality TV, he turned “Survivor” into a massive hit for CBS in 2000 and followed up with NBC’s “The Apprentice” in 2004 — series that exploded into catchphrase-coining, pop-culture sensations.

More recently, however, Burnett has fumbled to find that Midas touch, reflecting how rapidly a headline-grabbing franchise can fade into yesterday’s news. Ratings for “Survivor” have dwindled to just another moderately successful show, and so many viewers fired Donald Trump that NBC has sidelined his weekly job interview indefinitely. Fox’s “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” has shown promise, but NBC’s boxing series “The Contender” exhibited the Nielsen punch of a kitten, Fox’s “The Casino” rolled snake eyes, and CBS’ “Rock Star” plays to club-sized ratings, not arenas.

Counting Burnett out prematurely would be wholly misguided given his resume and professional grit (translation: I fear he can kill me with his bare hands), but the networks could use another sprinkle of his pixie dust, and he’ll have two high-profile opportunities to provide it before May is over: “On the Lot,” a “find the next great director” competition in partnership with Steven Spielberg, lands May 22 on Fox — with a premiere push from “American Idol” — while CBS’ “Survivor” substitute “Pirate Master” yells “Ahoy!” the following week.

Having seen neither show yet, there’s no way to judge their merits, except to observe that both sound terribly derivative of projects that made Burnett (and for that matter, Jerry Bruckheimer) a very wealthy man. Indeed, it’s hard to escape cynicism seeing something with “Pirate” in the title scheduled to set sail right after “Pirates of the Caribbean’s” latest sequel, obviously hoping to plunder some of that free publicity.

Only a fool would suggest reality has run out of gas, as the still-lofty ratings for “Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” attest.

Still, the freshness that infused “Survivor” and the cheekiness that established Trump as the unlikeliest of TV stars has clearly dissipated, and the familiar trappings of those elimination contests — the slick editing, wildly dramatic music and carefully crafted “characters” — are so old-hat by now that savvy viewers can practically see the puppet strings. At this point, then, simply recycling variations on the dog-eat-dog theme hardly seems like a winning strategy to get the genre’s groove back.

Based on the way the major networks are limping toward this season’s finish line, there should also be a sense of urgency about the summer — especially with the looming threat of a writers strike. Yet surveying the onslaught of reality shows being offered, there’s a real danger summer ’07 will be a repeat of ’06, which yielded a laundry list of forgettable reality knockoffs that disappeared with barely a ripple.

Even with the recent blemishes on his resume, Burnett could go a long way toward reversing that trend if either of his upcoming programs defies the lowered expectations fostered by last year’s dreary slate of summer alternatives. If not, the networks could again find themselves stumbling toward the fall, having squandered precious hours and promotional time on failed reality that might have gone toward moderate or low-rated returning series that could certainly use the exposure.

“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor” roused and revolutionized TV during the summer months, but no revolution lasts forever. Middle age has set in, leaving broadcast TV again grasping for lifelines, and it’s going to require a swashbuckler with Burnett’s brand of moxie to stage a daring rescue.

In other words, if Fox yells “cut” on “On the Lot,” and “Pirate Master” gets blown out of the water, the producer won’t be the only buccaneer that feels like yelling “Arggh!”

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