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Mark Burnett: Thriving in Primetime’s Shark Tank

The billion-dollar producer has had plenty of misses, but his batting average is enviable

Producing a hit TV show is no easy feat. Producing four hit shows across three networks and a variety of genres is a Herculean task.

For Mark Burnett, that’s simply another day at the office.

The ubiquitous reality maven has his flag planted at ABC (“Shark Tank”), CBS (“Survivor”) and NBC (“The Voice,” “Celebrity Apprentice”) with reality hits. He took History to new heights this spring with “The Bible” miniseries. And there is more to come from his busy production banner, One Three Media, which is charging ahead with scripted development, as well as shows for cable, syndication and international markets. After years as a reliable hitmaker, Burnett has reached the level where his brand name resonates with auds.

“If Mark’s name is on it,” CBS alternative topper Jennifer Bresnan says, “it’s going to be good.”

Of course, Burnett has had his share of misses with all the swings he’s taken. NBC’s “Stars Earn Stripes” earned more gripes than anything in 2012, with Jack Osbourne alleging the show discriminated against him for having multiple sclerosis; viewership plummeted to less than 3 million during the show’s run. The drama between the Osbourne family and the Peacock over the show ultimately led to Sharon Osbourne ankling her judging post on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

Another Burnett skein, “The Job,” bowed on CBS earlier this year and tanked quickly, with the Eye pulling the program after just two episodes. Some of his ideas never made it that far — perhaps most memorably Burnett’s dream of rocketing an everyday person to the now-defunct Mir space station. NBC was game for “Destination: Mir” back in 2001; unfortunately for Burnett, the Russians were not.

Whether a show lasts 20 seasons or two episodes, it’s always a learning experience, Burnett says.

“It’s a hit-driven business, and not everything you do is a hit,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to have a number of hits. I never get lulled into thinking that it’s easy or it just happens. It’s always because of hard work and luck.”

In a way, the Burnett television brand is a reflection of the producer himself: He revels in competition and is a boundless showman, yet strives to be uplifting in his showbiz pursuits.

“The Voice” is a good example of the parallels between producer and product. The show was based on a Dutch TV format acquired from John de Mol’s Talpa TV. But the spirit of the show and its emphasis on coaching, not judging, contestants, was inspired by a 2010 segment on “Celebrity Apprentice” that featured Bret Michaels mentoring then-aspiring singer Luke Bryan.

“We saw the excitement that happened when an experienced mentor meets inexperience,” explains Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and latenight programming for NBC. “We knew we wanted to incorporate that into to a TV show that would have odd-couple celebrities and cross-genre musical pairings.”

“Survivor” flaunts cutthroat alliances and cringe-worthy competitions, but Burnett strives to make it largely safe for family viewing. “Shark Tank” and “Celebrity Apprentice” ultimately celebrate the virtues of hard work and determination.

But if anything proves Burnett’s maxim that programming doesn’t have to be crass or edgy to grab an audience, it’s the size of the crowds drawn by “Voice” and “The Bible.”

To borrow a line from Burnett’s most enduring franchise, the tribe has spoken.

Outwit, Outlast, Outproduce

Mark Burnett has been responsible for more than 2,600 hours of TV during the past two decades. A sampling of hits, misses and one-season wonders:

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