Mark Burnett knows star power when he sees it. As the creator of Survivor, he brought us the scheming Richard Hatch, the cutthroat Russell Hantz and the pirate with a heart of gold Rupert Boneham. But he may have found the ultimate reality star in his latest series, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, airing Sundays on TLC beginning Nov. 14. And yes, Palin may be a polarizing figure, but, Burnett says, that’s what makes her such a perfect choice. In an exclusive interview, he tells me why.
When you think of Sarah Palin as a host for a reality series, do you see the glass as half full with the people who love her, or half empty with the people who would never watch because it features her?
Mark Burnett: The entire Sarah Palin fan audience will be a huge rating. Certainly people have different views than Sarah Palin and feel quite strongly in the opposite direction and will tune in just to find out for themselves [what she is like]. This was conceived a year and a half or two years ago. [I saw] how she was covered every day, and she still is today. As a producer, my job is to make the decision to put people on television that I think people will tune in to. “Tune in” is a big function of marketing. I don’t have any work to do with explaining who Sarah Palin is, unlike most of the reality shows. In the beginning with Kate and Jon, the Duggars, the Cake Boss, no one knew who those people were. In this case for us, and for TLC, it is much less a marketing job.
And this series is completely nonpolitical. I love Alaska. I’ve shot up there before. And I just felt, you know, it’s kind of a good idea — Sarah Palin giving people all over America an intimate tour of her state with her walking a mile in the shoes of Alaskans, and what Alaskans do. And that’s what the show is about.
Did she choose what you will see, or did you suggest things? And what was she most adamant that everyone see?
The people that I’ve shown episodes to, almost every single person said, “Wow! I didn’t know Alaska was that cool. I really want to go there.” Sarah worked with my team on every episode we would shoot. It was really about trying to get as much adventure in as possible. Visiting Mt. McKinley was an important thing to do as were fishing trips, dogsledding, camping with the family — big Alaskan adventures. The theme of the series is summer adventure with Sarah Palin and her family showcasing Alaska.
Is there much of herself and her family featured in it?
A lot. It’s predominately Sarah, but Sarah has a very busy schedule and we had the opportunity to make it a family adventure, an extended family adventure — including her father, her brother, her sister-in-law, [her husband] Todd’s grandmother and mother and the kids. This is a large and extended family who all take part in adventures. It’s a very outdoor state and a very outdoor family. Way before Sarah came on the political scene, she and Todd were in commercial salmon fishing, so we have an episode on salmon fishing. So what you are really seeing is the nonpolitical Sarah Palin and her family in their home state, doing things they would do.
What do you think accounts for her incredible popularity?
[long pause] I think she walks the talk of Middle America and probably says a lot of things that are on people’s minds. I never discussed anything political with Sarah ever. We set out to make an adventure docu-series and it grew from there. The adventures were originally going to be Sarah and Todd, but eventually the entire family started going out on adventures and I thought, “What an outdoorsy family.” I think they speak their mind and they are living the Alaskan kind of pioneer spirit.
We have great funny stuff about the nosy neighbor, that runs throughout the series. We call it the “nosy neighbor episode.” Todd and his buddies built a huge fence so this reporter couldn’t spy on them.
Sarah does say at one time, “How would anybody like it? The press is saying I am overreacting, but how would you feel if some mysterious guy moves in next door and is watching you and your kids playing in the backyard?” Every parent can relate to that.
How did she find the time to do this series? Scheduling must have been difficult.
We did a lot of planning. One thing about Sarah Palin and Todd Palin is they do what they say they were going to do. We set the time aside and we went and did it. They are very hard workers. Todd Palin is like Captain America. This guy can fix anything. He is a top fisherman. He can drive the boats and fix the nets.
What surprised you the most about doing the series?
How outdoorsy and tough the family is. There are things like when they are doing fishing up in Bristol Bay. And Sarah was saying we are kind of like a farming family. If you don’t work you don’t eat. There is no room for slackers. What you see from this series is a very ordinary Middle American family. They are, obviously, in the political spotlight, but if you took that out of it, you’d like to hang out with them as a family.
There’s one scene where we are literally within 10 feet of a black bear and you’ve got Todd, Sarah and [their daughter] Piper, and Piper is making growling sounds at the bear and Sarah is saying, “That’s enough. Todd, back the boat up, back the boat up.” Then she explains to Piper that the bears could literally jump in the boat and the reason they are not is because there are so many salmon for them to eat.
This series is a love letter to Alaska. It really is. I love it up there. I am hoping many more people go up and visit.