BY MOLLY GIVEN
In pop culture today, reality TV reigns king over many genres. But back in the early 90s, the concept was completely untapped, until powerhouse producer Mark Burnett stepped onto the scene. Burnett’s most famous show and the one that many say launched the new wave of television was the ever-popular competition series “Survivor,” but before castaways even stepped foot on an island, Burnett had another competition show, which is probably even more intense.
“Eco-Challenge” premiered in 1994, and the great race took contestants around the world on multi-day adventures to test both their teamwork and their will. The show lasted a few seasons before calling it quits, but two years ago Burnett along with Showrunner and Executive Producer Lisa Hennessy, who was also there from the beginning, decided the timing was right to bring the trek of a lifetime back.
Now, the show is dubbed “World’s Toughest Challenge: Eco-Challenge Fiji” and has gone through a bit of a re-vamp adding the wildly popular adventure enthusiast Bear Grylls as host and partnering with Amazon to bring the series back to life. The series debuts this Friday on Amazon Prime and according to Hennessy, will put audiences on the edge of their seats for an incredibly moving experience.
Lisa Hennessy sat down with Metro to discuss more on why now is a good time to bring back the show and dive into how teamwork was the driving force behind making everything happen.
You were involved with the original project back in the 90s, what was that experience like for you?
You know, it started my TV career. I grew up in Chicago and came out to California and heard about this adventure show that was starting, and I knew that it was exactly what I was meant to do. It’s sports, travel, adventure and I basically bugged Mark (Burnett) for about six months until he hired me. We started it in the desert of Utah April 25th 1995, and that’s really when the grand adventure of Mark Burnett productions began. We went on to then do it as a race in British Columbia in Canada, Morocco, Argentina, Malaysia, New Zealand and then Australia. It was an incredible experience for me being able to work at a very young age and starting off my career there, because this is before there really were reality shows—the genre didn’t exist. So it was a really exciting time to be pioneers and really figuring out the genre. Then “Survivor” hit in 2000 and really became this juggernaut. But it’s an absolute privilege after 17 years to bring [Eco Challenge] back.
Was this something that you guys have always talked about bringing back one day?
There were points throughout the 17 years where we thought about it. It’s a production that I mentioned really started Mark Burnett Productions and it was Mark’s first TV production, so it has a very close place to our hearts and we really love it. We admire what it stands for, it’s really special for us. We started talking about bringing it back and then Bear Grylls got on board and Amazon Prime, and as with anything, timing is really important and the team is really important. We brought in some new people, but then we also had to get the old band back together in order to really pull off the really intense production, it’s all about teamwork. To do a really massive and complicated production, you need the right team and you need all the right players to come back for us to really pull it off.
How was it working with Bear Grylls? Why do you think he’s right to join the team for this production?
I think Bear is such an inspiration for the adventure community. To have him at the helm, and to have such a massive global appeal, he’s such a great, amazing human and really epitomizes adventure. He’s just the actual perfect face of the new evolution of where the challenge is going in terms of turning into the world’s toughest race. There’s no one who’s better to be the lead and to be the person landing and jumping out of a helicopter to guide these teams in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the jungle and telling them to never give up and to keep going. He is such an incredible cheerleader and advocate for adventure with that community, so it’s a perfect combination.
What is about this kind of adventure show that draws people in to want to compete and also to watch?
With wanting to compete, it’s 2020 and we have a couple challenges in front of us where most of us are on our phones and on our devices way too much. We don’t have a connection with each other too much anymore and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I think that what adventure racing and ‘Eco Challenge’ really brings for people is the chance to test themselves and to really see what they’re made of. I think now more than ever people want to get away from their devices and people want to challenge themselves, especially when there is so much uncertainty in the world. I think from a viewer’s standpoint, they can be inspired by people really pushing themselves past what they ever thought was possible through the power of teamwork. I think teamwork is an important element to the challenge, because it’s not an individual sport. You’re only as strong as your weakest member and so it really teaches you to be strong and to work together as a team and to know at any given time, you’re going to have the lowest of lows and have other team members pull them up. In real life, we all need to be team members and we need to be stronger together, and I think there are lessons that the challenge carries over to real-life today more than ever.
Are there any teams from this season that stand out to you in particular?
I’ve got to be honest, I absolutely love all of them and the fact that we have such global diversity, and different backgrounds and different ages. I think for viewers there’s someone that they can see in themselves or their community that they can root for. But for me personally, I really love Team Endure’s story, it’s really close to my heart. Mark Macy is one of the athletes, he’s 58 and he’s raced before for Eco-Challenge so I’ve known him for 25 years and he’s just such an incredible person. Recently he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s and called me about two years ago when we opened registration and said Lisa, I really want to race and do you think we could make that happen? I said absolutely, you are super special to us—then his son Travis decided to put together a team for his father. To me, family is just a really strong element and I think that everybody can relate to that. To race with your father and to have that struggle taking place doing the toughest things they can do back at home and then back in the jungles of Fiji, I think it’s a really compelling story that I think every person on the planet can relate too. Alzheimer’s is a really terrible disease and I think at some point we’ve all been touched by it, and to hear Mark’s story and to cheer him on is incredibly special. That team is really, truly the spirit of what “Eco Challenge” is all about.
Overall what do you hope audiences take away from the show?
I really hope that audiences take away how strong people are when they work together. That’s the biggest thing for me, and I think it’s an important lesson for the time that we are facing. I really just want people to see themselves in a lot of these athletes. There are people that are racing together as a family team, there are 68-year-olds racing, there are 18-year-olds racing, there are women racing for female empowerment, there’s a team of ex-military personnel that were injured in the line of duty there to show that they’re not broken. So there is just something that everyone can see in themselves. I just think that during this period of time the lessons learned to just give people inspiration to overcome incredible obstacles, I hope they walk away being inspired.
‘World’s Toughest Challenge: Eco-Challenge Fiji’ drops Aug. 14 on Amazon Prime
This story first appeared on our sister publication philly.metro.us.