Mark Burnett: MGM Deal Will Drive Faith and Family Channel

MGM wanted more traction in television production. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey wanted more capital and resources to support their vast business plans, specifically the launch of an over-the top subscription channel offering faith- and family-themed programming.

MGM’s acquisition of a 55% stake in Burnett and Downey’s production banners aims to provide both sides what they want most. As part of the deal, MGM has resurrected the United Artists imprint (again), with Burnett installed as CEO of United Artists Media Group. Downey’s LightWorkers Media, the banner behind the History miniseries “The Bible” and CBS’ upcoming “The Dovekeepers,” is now a unit of UAMG.

Burnett is so enthusiastic about the prospects for the partnership that he’s got producers on his network TV shows, “The Voice,” “Survivor” and “Shark Tank,” hustling to insert the new UAMG logo on the end credits of those shows in episodes to air this week.

“What’s most important to us about this deal is that we’re looking to the future,” Burnett told Variety in his first interview since the deal was unveiled Sept. 22. “We’re not just doing the same thing over and over. We’re expanding.”

Burnett spoke by phone from on location in Africa where he and Downey are working on the NBC mini “A.D.” The pair will move on to Malta this week where production is starting on “Dovekeepers.”

Burnett said that while now MGM has majority control of his company, he and Downey have a much bigger platform to work from, drawing on MGM’s vast library of intellectual property and access to capital. And the couple has sizable equity stakes in UAMG. Hearst Corp., which previously partnered with Burnett in One Three Media, also remains an equity partner. (Burnett would not elaborate on the ownership breakdown among the three partners.)

Burnett’s exec team from One Three Media will transition over to UAMG, lead by chief operating officer Brian Edwards. The union of the companies will be evident at Mipcom next week as UAMG will be present in MGM’s exhibition space.

Among the highest priorities for Burnett and Downey is the launch of the faith and family digital channel. The project has been in the works at One Three Media for more than a year. MGM has put together a “working group” of executives who are focusing on getting it off the ground within months.

At present, the team is hammering out plans for content acquisition, staffing and the key question of whether they will seek a digital partner or go it alone. They’ve already determined that it will be a subscription offering rather than ad-supported, Burnett said.

SEE ALSO: MGM Acquires Stake in Burnett/Downey Production Companies

“As we all look at what the media landscape is going to look like in the next few years, we know that over-the-top is going to be an important part of our strategy,” Burnett said. “This is a very big endeavor for us. We have a working group looking at the appropriate hires. We have a very well thought-out strategy here. We’ve been working on it for well over a year.”

Burnett and Downey’s success with “The Bible” mini and the “Son of God” feature, distributed earlier this year by 20th Century Fox, has proven to them that there is a deep well of demand for high-end programming with a spiritual bent. Given the couple’s track record and high profile from their outreach to many faith communities, Burnett is confident that he and Downey have the credibility with the target audience to make it viable.

“There is a huge thirst out there (among) people who are wanting this kind of programming and looking for the right group of people to curate that experience,” Burnett said. “Roma and I are best positioned to provide that value to millions of people.”

The channel will present a mix of acquired programming and original content. It also aims to build an archive of sermons from a range of faith leaders and to serve as a kind of information clearinghouse for individual congregations around the country.

The primary focus of the channel will be entertainment fare, but it may well deviate from standard movie and TV series formats. Burnett said he’s more than a little intrigued at the programming possibilities for an Internet-delivered service.

“It’s important for us to have a two-way communication with our customers,” Burnett said. “This is the first time you can actually have a relationship with your viewers. It’s not just about a scenario where you make something and they sit back and watch it. Of all arenas, the faith and family arena is such a perfect merging of this two-way street.”

UAMG will operate autonomously from MGM’s existing TV group, though Burnett envisions plenty of collaboration with the division led by MGM TV and Digital prexy Roma Khanna.

“I now have two Romas in my life,” Burnett quipped.

The discussions that lead to the launch of UAMG were sparked earlier this year when MGM chief Gary Barber recruited Burnett and Downey to produce the Lion’s remake of Biblical epic “Ben-Hur,” to be directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

The timing was fortuitous, because the couple and Hearst execs were looking to grow One Three Media and LightWorks and take advantage of the red-hot deal market for indie production entities. The conversations with Barber quickly expanded beyond the scope of one movie.

“We just knew it was right as we got to know Gary and his team while working on ‘Ben-Hur,’ “ Burnett said. “We approached this deal from a position of success. Overnight our deal makes (UAMG) a big player in TV series and we are well positioned to capitalize on all the different areas we are moving in to.”

(Pictured: Mark Burnett, Gary Barber, Roma Downey)

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