MGM TV Bustling Under Mark Burnett’s Unconventional Leadership

Mark Burnett has two stunning views from the places where he handles most of the business of running MGM Television and Digital Group.

From the window of his corner office at the company’s Beverly Drive headquarters in Beverly Hills, Burnett can see the house where he worked as a nanny after arriving in the U.S. in the late 1980s, fresh out of the British Army. That’s a potent reminder of how far he’s come in the 25 years since he launched his TV career with the unscripted adventure series “Eco-Challenge.”

From the spacious wooden deck of his home on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Burnett often rolls calls while looking out at the rocky grandeur of Point Dume. The sights, sounds and salty aroma of the ocean are also a potent reminder of how far he’s come, and of the infinite possibilities that lie ahead.

Burnett has long been established as one of TV’s most formidable and innovative producers. But his career took a new turn 18 months ago when he was named president of MGM Television and Digital Group, after MGM acquired the remaining 45% interest in Burnett’s United Artists Media Group production venture with Hearst Corp. MGM’s total purchase price for Burnett’s banner was around $600 million.

The executive post at the studio was a surprise to the industry. Burnett had always been the maverick head of his own independent shingle, leaving him free to partner opportunistically with networks and studios as projects arose. Was TV’s ultimate entrepreneurial producer really ready to hang up his cargo shorts and IFB earpiece to sit behind a desk? Perish the thought.

Burnett has adapted the job of running a studio division to his own style, with the encouragement of MGM chairman-CEO Gary Barber. He’s typically in the MGM offices once or twice a week at most. He hasn’t given up his hands-on role as executive producer of NBC’s “The Voice” or ABC’s “Shark Tank,” among other shows. Burnett and his wife, actress-producer Roma Downey, travel frequently in connection with various productions and the couple’s many passion projects. And MGM TV’s president still doesn’t spend much time wearing suits.

“Gary Barber learned who I am quickly and very smartly didn’t try to make me anything different,” Burnett says. “I’m a deliverer of hits, and I’ve always done it in a certain way. If the Cleveland Cavaliers got LeBron James back and told him to play a different way — who would do that? You’d be crazy, right? Gary Barber buys my company and quickly senses who I am and what I’m good and what I’m not good at, and he lets me be me.”

The nontraditional approach has been good for MGM Television. The division that had one show on the air five years ago — MTV’s “Teen Wolf” — is fielding 18 series this year, including those that came with the Burnett buyout (notably “The Voice,” “Shark Tank” and CBS’ “Survivor”). Burnett describes himself as a master delegator, giving his programming lieutenants — scripted TV head Steve Stark and unscripted boss Barry Poznick — plenty of room to do their jobs. Brian Edwards, the former COO of Burnett’s One Three Media, holds down the fort on the business side as MGM TV’s exec VP of operations.

The Lion has become a player in the prestige TV arena with the success of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and FX’s “Fargo” — both spearheaded by Stark prior to Burnett’s arrival in January 2016. Burnett has dabbled in scripted in the past, but he knows it’s not his forte. “The bigger canvas I have now means I get this great scripted team led by Steve Stark. I get to do what Gary does with me — let them be brilliant at what they do,” Burnett says.

MGM has fielded two promising unscripted series this summer — Fox’s “Beat Shazam,” hosted by Jamie Foxx, and ABC’s “Steve Harvey’s Funderdome.” Both shows were developed to involve built-in marketing partners with reach that extends beyond network promos. The music service Shazam is all in on the Fox show, which has a companion app. Amazon is a partner in marketing the products served up by aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs on “Funderdome.”

Burnett credits the savvy of Poznick for bringing together those deals, allowing the shows to prosper outside the network window.

Poznick and Burnett collaborated a decade ago in launching the Fox game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” That experience taught Poznick all he needed to know about working for Burnett, an intimidating prospect for an unscripted TV producer. At the time “5th Grader” was born in 2007, Burnett had never produced a show shot entirely on a soundstage.

Burnett relies on his chief lieutenants: unscripted TV boss Barry Poznick and scripted TV topper Steve Stark.
Michael Lewis for Variety

“After ‘5th Grader’ was sold, he said to me, ‘You take it from here. I’ve never made a studio show before. If you need aerial shots, let me know,’ ” Poznick recalls. Despite Burnett’s stature, he told Poznick, “I’m going to learn from you.”

Burnett famously rewrote the rules of television with the launch of “Survivor” in 2000 by handling the advertiser integration deals on his own and retaining 50% ownership of the franchise. He’s doing the same as a studio
executive. He’s about one-third of the way through a five-year contract with MGM, and he has a sizable equity stake in the studio through the buyout.

Barber made a concerted effort three years ago to recruit Burnett to invigorate MGM’s TV operations. He hasn’t been disappointed. The absorption of Team Burnett went a long way to helping MGM post adjusted earnings of more than $400 million in 2016, up from $214 million in 2011 when Barber took over as CEO. MGM TV’s adjusted earnings reached $134 million in 2016, up 125% from the previous year, per MGM’s annual report.

“The moment I met him I said, ‘That’s a guy I want on my team,’” Barber says. The two connected easily on a personal level given Barber’s long history as a movie producer. “My real sell to him was ‘I don’t want to change you one bit. I just want you to have a bigger platform,’” Barber says.

Burnett’s ascent at MGM has come at a heady time for the producer. The MGM buyout added to his considerable wealth. His three biggest network franchise shows — “The Voice,” “Survivor” and “Shark Tank” — are defying gravity, becoming more valuable in an era of declining ratings. If that weren’t enough, the former star of his NBC hit “The Apprentice” is now the nation’s commander-in-chief.

Burnett weathered a storm last fall when he was pressured to address questions of then-candidate Donald Trump’s offscreen behavior during his 14 seasons on “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” In the heat of the “Apprentice” flap, Burnett, who is on record as a donor to Democrats, disavowed supporting Trump politically and decried “the hatred, misogyny and division that has been a very unfortunate part of [Trump’s] campaign.”

But Burnett and Trump remain connected through “The Apprentice,” which is now largely owned by MGM, with Trump holding a significant stake. Despite their political differences, Burnett and Trump are friends, although Burnett says of late there has been little contact.

“I’m making TV and he’s working on the administration, so there’s no reason to be chatting that much,” he says. Burnett has not spoken to Trump about the future of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which struggled in its return to NBC with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the boardroom and was not renewed. Trump wasn’t shy about criticizing the Schwarzenegger edition via Twitter.

“I’m sure he’s got more things on his mind,” Burnett says. “We’ve had zero discussion about what to do with ‘The Apprentice.’”

Burnett says he has no doubt the program will be back in the U.S. in some form in the future. But he’s also enjoying gaining exposure in new arenas, such as a series of Snapchat shows that Poznick’s group is producing, or Stark’s development of a spy thriller based on Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels. There’s also the digital channel Light TV that MGM started in partnership with Fox Television Stations last year. The family-friendly entertainment outlet hails from LightWorkers Media, the production unit run by Downey, who is a presence on the channel.

The growth in TV production comes as MGM has expanded on the distribution side by taking full ownership of Epix in a $1 billion deal with former partners Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate. Epix is envisioned as an important launching pad for many more original series from Burnett’s wing.

The heightened activity that the TV investment has brought to MGM has quieted — for now — rumors that the studio is back on the auction block. Barber assures that the private equity firms that own MGM, primarily Anchorage Capital and Highland Capital, are not in any hurry to cash out — in fact, quite the opposite.

“We’re a broad-based premium-content company. We are looking to create hits and franchises for the long-term future,” Barber says. “We’re facing an era of [industry] consolidation. We’re looking to acquire, not be acquired.”

Burnett never aspired to be a senior executive at a corporation, but the Lion’s den that he entered early last year has been energizing for him as well as for the company. From time to time, Burnett admits, on his drive home from the studio he will park his car (usually the Bentley or the Tesla) outside the house where he was once domestic help and take a few minutes to marvel at his good fortune.

“The worst thing for me would have been to get involved for the first time in my life with a big corporation and try to be an executive who fits into what other people think I should be,” Burnett says. “There are other executives at our company who know how to turn hit shows into financial benefit for our company. I like to play hard to win. I’m a guy on the field scoring points. Mostly three-pointers.”