Will a 'Celebrity Apprentice' Sleep With the Fishes?
On Thursday, Jan. 31, NBC airs a two-hour episode of "The Celebrity Apprentice," in which two teams of celebrities -- currently split into men and women -- vie for the approval of Donald Trump and to win money for their favorite charities.
The reality show is a variation of "The Apprentice" format of having business hopefuls compete for a job with the Trump Organization.
In "The Croc and the Rat," the celebrity teams are sequestered in adjacent conference rooms and ordered to come up with a marketing campaign for "SolesUnited," a program from footwear manufacturer Crocs that recycles donated shoes for distribution to developing nations.
Piers Morgan ("America's Got Talent") proposes that he and Vincent Pastore ("The Sopranos") stage an argument, giving Pastore a pretense to leave the men's room and loiter in front of the women's, to see what he can hear. Pastore then goes undercover with the women, but he later has a change of heart about his underhanded ways.
At this point, the fine line between fiction and fact begins to get a bit sketchy.
"It's one of the best episodes this company's ever produced," says executive producer Mark Burnett, during a screening at his company headquarters in Los Angeles. "It's two hours because it would have been cheating the creative [side of the project] to try to jam this into 43 minutes."
Insisting he is "very two-hour-episode shy," Burnett then says, "This deserves two hours. In fact, you couldn't write this stuff."
"The Celebrity Apprentice" has been performing well for NBC on Thursdays, well enough to already earn a pickup for next season. The sophomore edition of the show is set to premiere in January 2009.
"These are the ones who took the risk," says Burnett of the original group of celebrities. "Now, going forward, we can do one easy, because everybody's seen what it's like. They're raising so much money for charity. Think of the underlying value -- the amount of goodness being done from this show is incredible. No question, really changing lives.
"There's no country like the United States of America. If America stops its charity, the world would fall apart, fall apart. People don't get that about America, [the generosity both] governmentally and individually."
When "Survivor: Micronesia" premieres on CBS on Thursday, Feb. 7, Burnett will have three unscripted shows on the same night, as it joins "Apprentice" and FOX's "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"
In an industry brought nearly to standstill by the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, which began in early November, producers of reality shows are still keeping busy.
Burnett has two upcoming projects for NBC: a family competition show called "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad," with host Dan Cortese, premiering Feb. 18; and a humorous game show called "Amne$ia," with host Dennis Miller, premiering Feb. 22.
Pointing out that he also has scripted projects waiting in the pipeline, Burnett says the strike hasn't altered his game plan.
"I've done nothing different during the strike. I have not tried to take advantage of it, profit from misery. It's not who I am. I have a lot of close friends who are writers. It would be totally inappropriate to say, 'Oh, I just sold 10 shows.'
"I don't operate like that. I try to do the high quality, less-is-more. We have a very successful company, obviously, and our strategy has worked. The only difference for me, I'm in a lot of cable discussions. I started in cable with [the adventure race] 'Eco-Challenge.'
"A lot of great nonfiction is working on cable, I'm very interested in that."
As for his favorite reality shows, Burnett of course names "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," calling them the "gold standard."
"However," he says, "among not my shows, my favorite shows are 'American Idol,' 'Dancing With the Stars,' those two, and 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.'
"That's my favorite non-Mark Burnett shows, and I wish all three of them were mine."