Skip to main content

Burnett Shows Off His TV Smarts

It has been three years since reality-show guru Mark Burnett had an instant hit with The Apprentice and nearly seven since Survivor, which remains a top-10 staple. The producer scored yet another ratings winner last week with the debut of Fox's Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Appearing three times in the plum post-American Idol time slot, 5th Grader got an A+ Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET, scoring Fox's highest-rated series premiere ever in total viewers (26.6 million). It also earned the network its best non-sports lead-out performance (11.2 rating/27 share) among adults 18-49 in 13 years, dating back to The George Carlin Show.

5th Grader was also the highest-rated 18-49 series premiere on any network in more than five years, tying House's mark in a February post-Idol time slot. Yet the kid-rific game show achieved what the good doctor couldn't: the highest retention rate ever for a show coming out of the singing-competition series—93% in the demo and 88% in total viewers.

On Wednesday, it dropped off slightly to a still potent 9.8/23 and 23.5 million viewers in the fast national results, retaining 88% of its Tuesday numbers in adults 18-49 and 89% in total viewers. It retained a healthy 83% of Idol's 18-49 audience and 79% of total viewers. In its first one-hour airing Thursday, 5th Grader held up amazingly well against mostly reruns. Its 9.4/22 in the overnights for 18-49 retained 90% of lead-in Idol's 10.4/26. And its ratings were fairly consistent from the first to the last half-hour.

The scores have been high enough that Fox has added four more episodes to air at 8-9 p.m. ET Thursdays on top of two previously announced airings March 15 and 22. This will put 5th Grader head-to-head with Survivor on CBS for five out of six weeks, the exception being one week of college championship basketball.

Burnett, the father of a fourth-, a fifth- and an eighth-grader, spoke to B&C's Jim Benson about his new winning formula and how fifth-graders across America love few things more than showing up their parents.

Why do you think this show is working so well?

I don't think anything. I just try to make good, engaging content. This one has very broad appeal. There are so many kids and parents in the country, and most of those parents struggle helping them with their homework. The hard drive in their brains can't remember all of those algebraic formulas or the names of all the Great Lakes that they learned 30 years ago.

And the kids just love seeing the adults screw up. Let's face it, we're always telling them what to do.

Having American Idol in front of the show also helps.

It has the greatest lead-in with American Idol. This show is very compatible with its family-friendly nature.

Did you create this as the anti-Jeopardy?

I loveJeopardy! Actually, I didn't think of that. This is a very simple premise, very relatable. There is incredible buzz I'm hearing. American school kids love that adults can't do the work.

But isn't TV supposed to make the adults feel good about themselves, too?

If anything, it will make you want to read a bit more. Most of the audience is parents.

There are more two-parent/two-kid families than singles in America, and this show is right on message for them.

You refer to your lifelines as “cheating.” What kind of reaction have you gotten to that?

The only place [this has been criticized] is in your magazine. B&C is the moral barometer of the entire nation. Everyone reads it.

Honestly, it's all in good fun.

So now that you are up to speed on the fifth-grade curriculum, what do the four layers of the Earth consist of? [the answer: crust, mantle, inner core and outer core]

I would need to peek at the answer.

It's frustrating. My fourth- and fifth-graders both had this last year for school projects, and I still can't remember.