'American Idol' Behind Bars: 'Apprentice' Producer Burnett Plans Prison Reality Shows

The news that reality-show king Mark Burnett is developing a prison talent show for the Discovery Channel's crime-themed network has some wondering whether the creator of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" has lost his touch with, well, reality.

Last week's announcement by the Investigation Discovery channel that it's developing Burnett's "Dancing Behind Bars," along with a singing competition called "Talent Behind Bars," was greeted by tweets of "WTF" by critics. Some of them have already dubbed the latter project "Prison Idol."

"It seems like one of those ideas, that once you hear it, is both unseemly and inevitable," James Hibberd, TV editor for The Hollywood Reporter, told ABCNews.com.

Investigation Discovery president Henry Schleiff welcomes the attention from critics.

"We're delighted with the attention given to the announcement of these two shows since these talent competitions will shed light on an often neglected aspect of our justice system -- what happens to people who want to rebuild their lives after serving their sentences," Schleiff said in a statement to ABCNews.com. "This is an opportunity to feature model prisoners incarcerated for minor offenses who want to turn over a new leaf when they leave the penal system. We look forward to working with Mark Burnett's One Three, Inc. to develop an entertaining and, we think, motivational series."

Nor does Schleiff mind the comparison being made to "American Idol."

"We're using them as a play off of the two most popular series on television," Schleiff said backstage at the Television Critics Association press tour last Friday.

The other series is, of course, "Dancing with the Stars," which has gained in popularity and even occasionally trumped top-rated "Idol" last season.

With Burnett set to produce the "Dancing" knockoff behind bars, some have questioned whether he has lost his programming touch.

Nikki Fine of the website Deadline Hollywood has already criticized Burnett's takeover of HGTV's "Design Star," in which, she wrote, he "turned the likeable Vern Yip into the awful Donald Trump."

Burnett's production company and Discovery Communications did not respond to requests for comment from ABCNews.com.

But Hibberd from The Hollywood Reporter said he does not believe Burnett has lost his golden touch; he's just aiming lower these days.

"His brand has been all about big family entertainment and, with this show and the Sarah Palin show, he's pursuing more polarizing content," Hibberd said.

Part of the reason, Hibberd said, is that it has been nearly impossible to have a breakout reality show on broadcast television in recent years. Like other producers, Burnett has turned to launching smaller shows on cable.

Prison Reality Shows Already Causing a Stir

Burnett's new show and the other jailhouse contest are sure to draw controversy, even though Schleiff has said that's not the intention.

"We are hoping to draw an audience that wants to be entertained for half an hour, [but] we're not trying to be exploitative," Schleiff told Broadcasting & Cable.

To that end, Schleiff said that the shows will not feature violent offenders, though it may include contestants doing time for drug convictions.

"The essence of the show is to highlight people who have been convicted of non-violent crimes and misdemeanors," Schleiff said about "Talent Behind Bars." "Maybe there's somebody in a part of the country where they've never had a real chance to have a proper education, but they have a talent. Maybe it's singing, for example.

"So if we can give somebody like that, because of the use of the medium of our series, a break, they [might] get seen. And [if] someone sees that they have an extraordinary ability, it's a chance for maybe a little bit of a redemption."

According to Broadcasting & Cable, prizes for the reality series are still being determined but could potentially go towards supporting prisoner rehabilitation.

But Will Marling, head of the National Organization for Victims Assistance, told ABCNews.com that these shows fail to take into consideration an important segment of the population: the victims.

"Even with non-violent criminals, the question is: how is justice served in this, how are victims served in this?" Marling asked. "Restitution in this country is abysmally low. The network is benefiting from people who are incarcerated and the prisoners may in some way be benefiting. That doesn't seem just to me."

Marling said he also wonders if the network will contact the victims of the offender-contestants to let them know the person who wronged them will be on television and "he's going to become a celebrity."

"These shows are potentially rife with pain," he said. "The network could run right over victims and not realize the suffering it's creating just by not involving victims in the conversation."

Some other shows on Investigation Discovery's lineup may also cause a stir. They include "Call 911," featuring emergency calls from the scenes of crimes; "Most Evil and Deranged," about crazed killers; and "Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?"