BURBANK EQUIPMENT FIRM FACED ITS OWN PROBLEMS AS A PART OF 'SURVIVOR'

The on-screen contestants in last summer's "Survivor" weren't the only ones stymied by their location.

"You could get lost very easily at night with absolutely no bearing, especially when it was raining," says Matt Battaglia, an engineer with Wexler Video, the Burbank-based video equipment company that wired Palau Tiga, the remote island off the coast of western Borneo where all the action took place. "It was tremendously muddy and rainy."

The island is five kilometers long, a kilometer wide and dense with forest canopies and footpaths barely wide enough for a single person to walk.

"You would walk down a trail, look back and it didn't look the same," he says. "It wasn't a place you would want to spend any length of time."

The tropical island presented a host of challenges for Wexler Video, most significantly protecting equipment from the damaging effects of humidity and salt water. Battaglia was on the island months ahead of the actual shoot with "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett's crew to decide what equipment was necessary: which special backpacks would protect the cameras for transport, what special procedures would be required to de-humidify the equipment after each shoot and what would be needed for special cleaning procedures.

"There are hundreds of pieces of equipment to choose from," says Battaglia. "We had to research and put together the best equipment for the job."

As it was, over 81 cases of equipment were sent to the island, including cameras, wireless microphones, TV monitors, playback machines and Avid editing systems.

Chris Thompson, president of Wexler Video, says his staff spent about two and a half months preparing for the show, purchasing, testing and picking out what would and what wouldn't work.

"We put our equipment to a special program to make sure it was ruggedized and would work, or they wouldn't have a show," he says.

Wexler Video has carved out a niche for itself, supplying video equipment to the reality TV industry for more than a decade.

The company was established by CEO Robert Wexler in 1984. The beginnings consisted of a simple store-front equipment video rental company in which Wexler did most of the work himself.

"We started out as more of a general service rental company in as much as we had a broad spectrum of rental equipment," says Wexler, whose first major account was the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

The opportunity to enter the world of reality TV came a decade ago with an "out of the blue" phone call from Bunim-Murray Productions.

"We basically helped them set up their first 'Real World' house for MTV," says Thompson.

Since then, Wexler has created solutions for a multitude of "Real World" challenges, specializing in creating the unobtrusive technology required for the show.

"In a recent episode, they took a bunch of kids into a spooky, dark, abandoned prison in which we put 45 cameras," says Thompson. "It worked real well, so well in fact that a few of the kids fled in the first few hours," says Thompson.

John Murray, president of Bunim-Murray Productions, has high praise for Wexler.

"Not only have we needed equipment, but answers and new ideas as well," Murray says. "We've learned so much together that going with someone else now would be like getting a divorce."

Wexler has provided equipment and expertise for many other reality TV shows, including "Eco Challenge," "Bug Juice for Disney," "Road Rules" and the highly successful "Cops."

Back on Palau Tiga, video photographer Biff Bracht and his wife Alicia Alexander spent the entire two months with the Survivor contestants.

"Wexler's equipment was great stuff," says Bracht. "It really took a beating and held up under the most brutal conditions."

Today, Wexler is considered one of the largest privately owned video equipment rental houses in the United States, with 82 employees and annual revenues of $17 million. That is expected to jump to between $20 million and $22 million next year, with more than half of that total coming from reality TV accounts.

"Our revenues have been increasing about 25 percent each year," says Joel Ordesky, vice president of operations for Wexler.

"The 'Survivor' job for CBS was 10 one-week rates, basically $45,000 times 10."

Wexler Video was asked by Survivor Productions to create equipment for its "Survivor II" series in the Australian outback, but turned down the opportunity.

"There are so many reality-based shows in this area that I see no reason to put our stuff through those rigors again," says Thompson. k

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