New production firm will have multiplatform focus

Scott Sassa has kept a low profile since he joined Hearst Corp. as prexy of entertainment and syndication in December 2008. But on Monday he emerged as the architect of a joint venture between Hearst and Mark Burnett for a production company focused on projects that can take advantage of multiplatform distribution plans and live events.

As part of the deal, Hearst is acquiring a 50% stake in Burnett’s production company, which includes rights to past Burnett shows other than CBS’ “Survivor” and NBC’s “The Apprentice.”

Sassa, the former NBC Entertainment topper, emphasized that the venture aims to produce programming for a range of outlets, not just the networks in the Hearst fold (Hearst owns stakes in A&E, Lifetime, History and ESPN, among others).

“We will sell to the place that is the best outlet — we don’t want to try to force-feed any of our networks,” Sassa said. “This is a new shingle that can handle any screen from phones to iPads to TV screens.”

He compared Burnett’s “Survivor” to “I Love Lucy” in terms of its legacy in spurring the unscripted TV biz.

The venture will be run by a four-person board of directors headed by Sassa and Burnett. Burnett will have an office and staffers at Hearst’s HQ in Gotham.

Hearst CEO Frank Bennack touted the still-unnamed venture as “a great opportunity to leverage Hearst’s brands across platforms and continue our move into new businesses.”

For Burnett, the deal offers ready access to capital and infrastructure. Burnett has been famously successful at courting advertisers and nontraditional sources of financing and sponsorship for his shows, but now he’ll be able to lean on Hearst’s ample resources. There’s also opportunity to develop programming tied to Hearst-controlled brands, which range from newspapers to magazines including Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.

As production of reality shows has become more complex and more expensive, numerous producers who once operated as indies have affiliated with larger production entities such as FremantleMedia, Endemol and Shine Group. But Burnett remained the biggest fish out there — making the deal a coup for Hearst and Sassa in particular. In 2008, there was talk of IMG acquiring Mark Burnett Prods. for as much as $400 million (though industry insiders scoffed at that figure as inflated).

Financial terms of the Burnett-Hearst deal were not disclosed. Sassa emphasized that the deal is “a 50/50 partnership.”

Burnett said he and Hearst are already working on a high-profile new project to be unveiled in the next few weeks. He acknowledged that personal considerations for him and his wife, thesp Roma Downey, played a part in his decision to settle down with Hearst. “For me, this is really about talking to Roma and saying, ‘What’s the next act of my career?’ ” he said. “I’m going to be doing exactly what I’ve been doing, but on top of that now I’ve got a whole team around me to help drive me forward.”

The producer also noted that Hearst has a wide variety of holdings and interests that will allow him to seek out expertise in any medium he chooses, from print to Web to TV. “They have Good Housekeeping,” Burnett said. “I must have gotten the seal.”

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