NBC is the winner in the multimillion-dollar bidding to air an out-of-this-world project from Mark Burnett, the producer behind the hit show "Survivor." The reality-TV production will end with an ordinary American taking a televised trip to Russia's Mir space station in late 2001 or early 2002. A Web site will be set up soon for would-be astronauts, a network spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The format for "Destination Mir" adds a few twists to the "Survivor" formula that garnered monster ratings this summer on CBS. A pool of applicants would be winnowed down to 12 to 15 finalists, who would be teamed up with professional cosmonauts and go through training at Russia's Star City facility - a routine that includes underwater spacesuit sessions and gut-wrenching simulations of weightlessness.
Over the course of 13 to 15 episodes, space officials would eliminate contestants who didn t show quite so much of the Right Stuff.
"It's going to be very, very dramatic in the beginning, and all the way through to the end," Burnett told MSNBC.com.
During the live two-hour conclusion of the competition, the finalist would be selected and taken aboard a Soyuz capsule for the live-broadcast launch to Mir.
"That way, I avoid all the agony I went through all this summer," Burnett joked. He was referring to the fact that he and a select few involved in "Survivor" had to keep secret for months the identity of that show's winning contestant - corporate trainer Richard Hatch.
The climax of "Destination Mir" would be scheduled sometime between December 2001 and June 2002, said Burnett, who stressed that many of the details still had to be worked out.
In announcing the deal Tuesday, NBC said it would cover the finalist's trip to Mir and back. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
"We can't wait to begin on this project, which will literally be out of this world," Garth Ancier, president of NBC Entertainment, said in a written statement. "This was a very complicated deal to arrange, but with 'Survivor' producer Mark Burnett's guidance, we believe it has unlimited potential and will take this type of reality programming to the next level."
Some observers had said NBC was slow to catch on to the reality-TV craze spearheaded by CBS' "Survivor" and "Big Brother." Until Tuesday, the network's biggest nod to the trend was a show called "Chains of Love," involving a woman who selects her dream date from among four men who are shackled to her.
The "Destination Mir" deal with NBC follows an agreement struck in August between Burnett and MirCorp, the Amsterdam-based company that is leasing Mir for commercial ventures.
Burnett discussed his Mir venture with all the major TV networks, and Shirley Powell, senior vice president of entertainment publicity for NBC, said an agreement was reached last week.
The deal was initially reported Tuesday by Daily Variety, which said the network would pay $35 million to $40 million for the rights to air the series. That sum would cover the estimated $20 million that MirCorp charges for a civilian flight to Mir, plus production costs. Variety reported that NBC would also share a significant portion of its advertising revenue with Burnett, and indicated that that played a key role in reaching agreement.
Neither Burnett nor Powell would discuss any of the deal's financial aspects, citing legal and business considerations.
"The crucial thing is creative," Burnett told MSNBC.com, "because if that doesn't work, there are no revenues."
NBC said it would also broadcast an hourlong documentary about Dennis Tito, a rocket scientist turned millionaire money manager who is to become MirCorp's first paying passenger. Tito already has begun his training and is scheduled to fly to Mir for a week to 10 days in mid-2001. Burnett would play a lead role in producing that documentary as well.
Burnett said the Mir shows would fit right in with his other adventure-oriented shows - "Survivor" as well as "Eco-Challenge," which is an environmentally themed extreme-sports competition set in exotic locales. He told MSNBC.com that he's been a space buff and sees space as a new frontier for TV ventures.
"It's really the beginning of the privatization of space," he said.
Russian space officials have been more willing than NASA to entertain such commercial ventures because their budgets have been stretched almost to the breaking point.
The 14-year-old Mir space station went through a series of setbacks in 1997, including an onboard fire and a collision with a cargo ship that nearly doomed the station. The Russians were just finishing up plans to send the station into a final fiery plunge through Earth's atmosphere when MirCorp came along with millions of dollars in private backing early this year.
The company bankrolled a 73-day mission to Mir this spring, and its first priority was to address safety concerns aboard the station. Currently, the station is on autopilot, awaiting its next crew.
Although Mir's Spektr module is still airless and useless, Russian space officials say the station can be operated safely for years longer, as long as private money keeps coming in.
One of MirCorp's directors, Internet entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria, said "Destination Mir" served to confirm Mir's long-term business outlook.
"We have said all along that the entertainment and media sectors offer exciting revenue-generating potential for Mir," he said in a written statement. "This is one element of our broad-based business plan, and it speaks well for Mir's overall commercial prospects."
Burnett acknowledged that space travel was risky, but he pointed out that risk was a factor in his other shows as well.
"I don't believe it's any more dangerous than 'Survivor,'" he told Variety. "When you saw Richard pick up a snake, that was a crazy move. He might have died. 'Eco-Challenge' every year is completely dangerous. If you want to deal with true adventure, you can't totally remove danger from the experience."
As has been the case with other reality-TV shows, participants would be asked to sign extensive agreements before they begin their training.
"Destination Mir" has already attracted interest from would-be participants, reportedly including retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, one of the finalists in the first "Survivor" outing. But Burnett said it was still far too early to begin the selection process.
"Obviously there's no point in having people apply until a maximum of six months before (the series begins)," Burnett told MSNBC.com. "For the most part," he said, "my focus right now is entirely on 'Survivor 2.'
Finalists are currently being selected for the "Survivor" sequel, which will be set in the Australian outback. NBC's Powell said Burnett's production company rather than the network would be responsible for selecting the contestants for "Destination Mir" as well. She indicated, however, that NBC would provide further information about the project over the Internet.
"There'll be a Web site, just like 'Survivor,'" she told MSNBC.com. She expected the site to make its debut by the end of the year.
Burnett emphasized that the successful contestant wouldn't necessarily have to be test-pilot material.
"Actually, you re just a passenger," he said. "What you need is to be a team player. ... It's a matter of the group, and two members of the group are professional cosmonauts."
Doesn't that sound a bit like the alliance-building strategy that won Hatch his million dollars on "Survivor"?
"I hadn't thought of it that way before," Burnett replied.