Burnett/AOL To Usher in New Gold Rush Era

Mark Burnett Productions and AOL are partnering to develop a real-life treasure hunt which will be made up of clues found on AOL, and probably a broadcast network and multiple magazines. Burnett is the creator of reality-show phenom Survivor, as well as The Apprentice and The Contender.

Gold Rush will give challengers the chance to search for 13 hidden caches of gold around the country. The top treasure will be worth $1 million. The heart of the programming will be episodic clips running three-to-five minutes, which Burnett will produce to be archived on AOL, most likely on a daily basis.

While AOL (and partner Web sites such as moviefone.com and mapquest.com) will be the main media outlet for the game, Burnett says he is also in talks to bring in a broadcast network. 

Plans do not call for a weekly network show, but rather clues that could be embedded into network programming.

Burnett says there could also be network specials to launch and close out the competition. "So many more people have a computer on between 9 and 5 than are watching TV, but for direct reach there is still nothing out there like the networks," he says."AOL is the biggest part of it, but people will get driven back and forth to TV to finalize the clues."

As for the TV component, Burnett says clues could be within the creative of prime time programming on a partner network. "You don't need to create something new," he says."You can work backwards.You just need to know what an upcoming episode is to create a clue around it. You don't need to create a new episode to make a clue."

Burnett says he has been working for more than a year on the contest, which is expected to begin later this year and last six to seven weeks.

Burnett says that, while the clues will be steeped in pop culture, there will also be a "Freemasons-type feel," referring to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and the film National Treasure as themes the show is built around. In fact, Burnett hired David Shugarts, author of Secrets of the Widow's Son: The Mysteries Surrounding the Sequel to the Da Vinci Code, as a consultant to help devise clues.

AOL Media Networks Executive Vice President Kevin Conroy says that, while advertising will be the main revenue generator for the project (they plan on selling a presenting sponsorship for instance), they are looking at developing ancillary opportunities. An example could be a subscription-based element to the show on AOL.com, which is a free service.

For AOL, the move continues the momentum it hopes to build in the free online programming realm, which Conroy said took off for the company with the successful online airing of the Live 8 concert. He says Gold Rush is the latest investment in the strategy to drive traffic and ad dollars with original programming.

Gold Rush may not be Burnett's only foray into online reality-based programming. He is also currently working with Yahoo! to try and resurrect The Runner, a project formerly at ABC that gives viewers/users the chance to "capture" an operative, in the spirit of The Bourne Identity.

Yahoo! Media Group chief Lloyd Braun was at ABC when the idea was first developed.--Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report