Mark Burnett takes a deep breath as he looks out over the expanse of the Pacific Ocean from the backyard of his Malibu home. With his flip-flop-clad feet propped up on a table next to a cup of tea, the prolific producer of “The Voice,” “Survivor,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Shark Tank” and other shows digresses to explain why the number 13 means so much to him.
“I have had visions of the numbers one and three my whole life,” he says.
There’s nothing unlucky about 13 for Burnett. It’s no accident, he says, that 2013 has been a year of tremendous growth for One Three Media, the busy production company Burnett co-owns with Hearst Corp.
Reflecting Burnett’s abiding Christian faith, 13 is symbolic of Jesus and his 12 apostles. One and three are also numerical shorthand for God, the one, and the trinity of the father, the son and the holy spirit.
On a corporeal plane, 2013 marks 13 years since Burnett became a heavyweight reality producer — “Survivor” proved to be a smash for CBS in the summer of 2000. (The show began with a 13-episode order, he adds). It’s also telling, in Burnett’s view, that he and Roma Downey, his wife and producing partner, triumphed this year with their History miniseries “The Bible.”
The success of the 10-hour, independently financed production has fulfilled Burnett’s long-held dream of breaking into the scripted business — an achievement made only sweeter by the significance of the subject matter.
Although many saw “The Bible” as the beginning of a new chapter in Burnett’s Hollywood career, he sees it as the bookend of the era that began with “Survivor.” What’s coming next, he says with the earnest salesmanship that has charmed network executives for years, will be bigger and bolder, even by his own high standards.
“The next chapter for us is going to be much more about scripted (shows),” Burnett says. “We’re going to do projects that we really want to tackle, like we did with ‘The Bible.’ Sometimes people just don’t have enough energy to take on something massive. We want to take on big projects.”
Certainly, Burnett has never suffered from a lack of ambition. While he had no traditional training as a TV producer, friends and colleagues say he has earned every inch of his success through a potent brew of raw talent, bravado, hard work, loyalty to those who work hard for him and a sense of kindness that reflects his by-the-bootstraps rise in showbiz.
“He is someone you want to bet on,” says CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves. “Mark’s track record is pretty astounding when you consider all the different styles of shows he’s done. They’re all marked by his extreme attention to detail and focus on making them as commercially viable as possible.”
As consistent as Burnett has been with unscripted shows, the core scripted realm of comedy and drama series presents a high hurdle for his company. It’s a world that is more tradition-bound — with shows more costly to produce per hour or half-hour — and which generally moves at a slower pace in development than the contemporary reality business that Burnett helped create. But if anyone has the ability to inject some new thinking into primetime scripted programming, it’s Burnett.
“He has remarkable taste and a great feel for what the public wants,” Moonves says. “And he executes well. When someone is doing a show for us, I want to know that there’s a guy worrying about that show at 3 a.m. as much as I am. Mark is that guy.”
Burnett, 53, grew up in a close-knit family of modest means in a tough part of London. As a kid, he idealized the vision of America he saw through such TV imports as “CHiPs” and “The Rockford Files” (he smiles when noting that he now lives on a slice of Pacific Coast Highway not far from where Jim Rockford parked his trailer). He chose the British Army over college, and soon wound up in the elite Parachute Regiment, seeing combat during the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina.
After he was discharged in October of that year, Burnett headed to Los Angeles, where he planned to sleep on the couch of a friend who was working as a chauffeur. According to Burnett’s oft-told narrative, he arrived in L.A. at 2 p.m. and was hired by 6 p.m. as a nanny for a Beverly Hills family with three kids. The first thing the mother asked him to do, as she headed out to her Jane Fonda Workout session, was to empty the dishwasher. He’d never seen one before.
“I called my mother in England to tell her what happened,” Burnett said. “She didn’t believe it. She said, ‘If you can’t come up with a better story than that, just don’t say anything.’ ”
(Burnett is well aware this all sounds like a sitcom — he tried to develop it as “Commando Nanny” for the WB Network in 2004, but it never quite gelled.)
He spent his first years in the U.S. in an assortment of jobs. Always an avid outdoorsman, Burnett was intrigued when he read in the Los Angeles Times in 1991 about an adventure race dubbed “Raid Gauloises” taking place in New Zealand and other foreign locales. He helped organize an American team, himself included; the competition involved cycling, hiking, skydiving, canoeing and other extreme tests.
On instinct, he acquired the TV rights to the event from the race founder. As he went around drumming up corporate sponsorship for the American team, he assured advertisers that the race would have TV exposure — even though he’d never before produced a minute of TV.
Burnett had become friendly with a local TV sports anchor, Mark Steines, future co-host of “Entertainment Tonight.” Steines introduced him to the news director of KCAL, Beth Maharrey, who bears the distinction of being the first TV exec to be bowled over by a Mark Burnett pitch. (“She said, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I am,’ ” Burnett recalls of her approving his 90-minute special, “Beyond Endurance.”) He asked her to give him a camera crew and a host in exchange for making the show when the Raid Gauloises in Oman was over. KCAL had the rights to air the special twice. After that, Burnett gave it to ESPN in exchange for some of the commercial spots, which he promptly sold to the team sponsors.
In hindsight, Burnett says he’s glad he barely knew what he was doing back then. The “Beyond Endurance” specials led him to launch an even more elaborate event in 1995 that he dubbed “Eco-Challenge,” which would run first on MTV and later on ESPN, Discovery Channel and USA Network. (He still marvels that he managed to convince “Good Morning America” to cover the start of the first Eco-Challenge race live via satellite from Utah.) “Eco-Challenge” proved to be a warm-up act for “Survivor,” which he set up at CBS (after shopping it all over town) in 1999.
“Sometimes naivete can be your best friend,” Burnett says. “When you start over-thinking the problems, analysis can be paralysis. You find more reasons not to do something.”
The Raid Gauloises experience “showed me that being a producer is like being in the Special Forces — they’re the first person in and the last person out on a project.”
“Beyond Endurance” also turned out to set the template for key Burnett trademarks: his reputation for derring-do (he competed in Raid Gauloises three years in a row) and his unusually close relationship with key advertisers.
Networks are usually fiercely territorial about their bluechip advertising partners, refusing to let any outsiders reach out directly to them. In the case of “Survivor,” that was a condition set out by CBS in order to secure a pickup. Moonves gave Burnett a month to recruit a few national brands in order to justify going straight to series without producing a pilot (which would have been unwieldy for a show like “Survivor”). After barely a week of making the rounds, Burnett got his greenlight.
He still co-owns “Survivor” with CBS, and he controls NBC’s “The Apprentice” franchise outright, including international distribution of all format licensing. A knowledgeable source estimates that those shows alone generate $40 million-$50 million a year for Burnett. (“Survivor” and “Apprentice” are not included in the One Three venture with Hearst.)
“It’s expensive to (hire) Mark Burnett, but you get your money’s worth,” Moonves says. “He never leaves a penny that’s not on the screen.”
Despite all he’s achieved, Burnett’s drive to expand his horizons is impressive.
“His energy level surpasses people who are 30 years his junior. His abdominal muscles go on for days,” says Paul Telegdy, NBC Entertainment’s prexy of alternative and latenight, who works closely with Burnett on “The Voice.” “He inspires confidence in people, and that’s really what leadership is at its essence.”
From “Eco-Challenge” to the present day, Burnett has assembled a sizable team of crew and support staff, from camera operators and editors to accountants and execs, who are incredibly loyal to him. The years of experience his crew members have working together makes for a shorthand that’s invaluable during production, Telegdy notes.
“A lot of people in this business can get very caught up in themselves,” says Terry Wood, a CBS alum who joined One Three Media as prexy of unscripted development in December. “He doesn’t take any of his success for granted.”
Friends also cite Downey as a steadying influence on her husband. The two were married in 2007. The three-acre spread they share with their blended family of three kids and two Irish wolfhounds is dubbed “the Sanctuary” for good reason.
“There is a stillness in me that is good for Mark,” Downey says. Burnett is quick to add: “Roma and I are very blue-collar people. We never forget that we’re one step away from being a P.A. on a show.”
Downey’s experience as an actress and producer has been important in guiding Burnett’s move into scripted programming. The two shepherded “Bible” hand in hand as co-writers and producers, on top of Downey’s onscreen role as Mary. She’s maintaining the same active role in the shaping of the follow-up mini for NBC, “A.D.: Beyond the Bible.” Burnett’s professional marriage to Hearst has also expanded his horizons. The deal struck in 2011 not only provided him with ready access to capital but opened the door to a wealth of resources, from the IP available through Hearst’s magazines and newspapers to programming opportunities at the company’s TV stations and cable assets (Hearst owns 50% of A+E Networks and a sizable chunk of ESPN with Disney).
“Our whole company gets excited when Mark is in the building and makes the rounds,” says Steven Swartz, who succeeded Frank Bennack Jr. as prexy-CEO of Hearst Corp. in June. “He’s such a life force of creativity and energy. The number of projects that he can execute with flawless efficiency and creativity is truly a marvel.”
Burnett had been offered richer deals in the past, but it was important to him to maintain operational control of the company. Burnett was impressed by Hearst’s assets and by Bennack’s reputation for integrity. Hearst came in as a partner with Burnett on funding “The Bible” before the conversations expanded to buying a stake in his company, a demonstration of support that was also important to Burnett.
“I had a lot of offers to sell my company, but I felt protected. God was watching over me,” Burnett says. “I found the right people that I wanted to be in business with. And I always want to have final say over what we make.”
Certainly, the relationship has been lucrative for both sides: “The Voice” popped as the No. 1 show on NBC, and “Shark Tank” has scored for ABC. “Bible” has been a juggernaut, with international licensing, homevid and a companion book series.
With all that Burnett has in motion, the one thing he’d like more of is that precious resource that money can’t buy: time.
Downtime is an alien concept to Burnett (as Downey confirms), but true to his roots, he’d love to have the luxury of devoting more hours to training for adventure sports. More often, he has to make do with running up a mountain trail near his home and going on scuba-diving expeditions with Downey.
“These are perishable skills,” Burnett says. “You really have to keep them in shape. It helps me think on my feet.”