In a case of life imitating “Survivor,” Russian space officials and television executives have formed an alliance with Western producers to press forward with a reality-TV show that would send the winner into orbit. A source familiar with the project says “Survivor” executive producer Mark Burnett is involved in the tentative deal. But backers of a rival effort say it’s still too early to vote them off the island.
Rumors about the Russian-backed space project have been percolating for weeks, leading up to Tuesday’s announcement that space officials in Moscow had struck a preliminary deal with ORT Channel 1, the privatized heir to Soviet-era state television.
The TV series would follow several contestants through cosmonaut training, with the best trainee winning a trip aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to spend a week on the Russian section of the international space station in November 2003, Channel 1 said. In a written statement, the channel said it expected to conduct such a competition “at least once a year for several years.”
The project echoed past efforts by Burnett to produce such as show, using Russia’s now-defunct Mir space station as the centerpiece, as well as the negotiations to put ’N Sync singer Lance Bass on a flight to the international space station.
“We’ve been carefully watching this story with space tourism arrangements and suggested making a TV project in which we (will) showcase our country’s achievements in space travel and give the winner a chance to fly in space,” the channel’s director, Konstantin Ernst, said in the statement.
The station quoted Russian space chief Yuri Koptev as saying the project was “attractive and promising” for the country’s space program. Channel 1 video showed Ernst and Koptev shaking hands on a preliminary deal, and Russian news media quoted agency spokesman Sergei Gorbunov as saying a final contract was to be signed by December.
Gorbunov said the space agency reached an agreement with Channel 1 because it offered “a better deal” than other TV production companies seeking to buy a seat on a spaceship, but he declined to provide financial details.
The Russians’ published rate for a space passenger flight is $20 million. However, the first paying passengers to the station — California millionaire Dennis Tito and South African Internet tycoon Mark Shuttleworth — reportedly paid a discounted fare in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
FROM ‘SURVIVOR’ TO SPACE
Hours after Channel 1’s announcement, a source familiar with the project told MSNBC.com that the Russians were in league with Burnett’s production company, and that Americans would be competing for a shot at space. Such an arrangement was also reported on SpaceRef.com, a space-oriented Web site.
When contacted by MSNBC.com Wednesday morning, Burnett’s producing partner, Conrad Riggs, declined immediate comment.
Burnett, who produces the adventure/race show “Eco-Challenge” and the boot-camp show “Combat Missions” as well as “Survivor,” would bring a wealth of deal-making experience to TV’s final frontier.
“Survivor,” for example, has become a success not only because of its top ratings but also because of its savvy product placement. The show takes contestants to a remote location where contestants must forge alliances to cope with rough conditions, physical and mental tests, and their own backbiting. Along the way to the final million-dollar payoff, the players vie for secondary rewards provided by paying sponsors, which might range from a soft drink to a sports utility vehicle.
WHAT ABOUT LANCE BASS?
The Channel 1 deal is separate from the up-and-down negotiations over Lance Bass’ space trip. Bass’ backers say their TV series would follow the 23-year-old singer through his preparations as well as a flight to the space station. Bass had been scheduled to accompany two professional cosmonauts on a Soyuz mission to the station this month, but financial snags led the Russians to take him off the crew.
Despite the setbacks, Bass is currently finishing up the initial round of his training at Russia’s Star City cosmonaut facility, and his backers still hope to get him on an April flight.
The key negotiator with the Russians for Bass’ flight is Jeffrey Manber, president of MirCorp, an Amsterdam-based space commercialization firm that had at one time partnered with Burnett. In e-mail relayed to MSNBC.com from Moscow, Manber said “MirCorp is not involved in this project but we wish them, and their American partners, well.”
He said MirCorp has worked hard “to create the right mix of commercial space assets, investors, corporate sponsors, television networks, and indeed worked several years ago with Mark Burnett, who is trying once again.”
“Success will help the new market of space media develop and further the transistion we all seek from a government-driven space program to one far more commercial,” Manber said.
TV producer David Krieff, who has been working on the Hollywood side of the Lance Bass project, was less diplomatic. He recalled that he was the target of sharply critical reports in the Russian news media, including a Channel 1 video spot that said the money being put up on Bass’ behalf “smells bad.”
Krieff voiced suspicions that such reports were aimed at discrediting him and clearing the way for a different deal.
“I absolutely guarantee that I will be extremely litigious on this thing,” he told MSNBC.com from Cannes, France, where he was attending an entertainment industry conference.
He was unsure how the contractual terms for Channel 1’s deal might affect Bass’ chances. “If the terms are that nobody else is allowed to do anything (for a space TV project), then yeah, it could affect Lance,” he said.
Krieff had also hoped that Bass’ flight would open the way for a more ambitious reality-TV series similar to the one described by Channel 1. The newly announced deal thus poses a challenge worthy of a “Survivor” face-off.
Although Channel 1’s announcement indicated that the winning space-TV contestant might stay exclusively within the space station’s Russian-built segment, the recently approved guidelines for space passengers indicate that the contestant would have to be cleared by NASA and other partners in the 16-nation space station effort — just as Bass was.
NASA representatives deferred immediate comment on Channel 1’s deal Wednesday.