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Mark Burnett on His New Role at MGM, Faith-Based TV and ‘Celebrity Apprentice’

Monday’s announcement that Mark Burnett was becoming president of MGM Television took the industry by surprise — bringing along his library of current and past series to the studio — but the veteran producer tells Variety the deal makes “perfect sense” from his perspective. “We’ve been working closely with Gary Barber since September, 2014,” he says. “No surprises.”

How long has this deal been in the works?

It’s been a couple of months since we started looking at this opportunity. We’ve been working closely together since MGM bought 55% (of the stake in his production company). We’re on the same floor as Gary Barber and the TV and film executives. We’ve been day-to-day working together. There have been so many opportunities coming to me in the last several months that I was clearly going to have to add a much bigger staff, so that as we looked at how I was going to have to do that, this made much more sense. A lot of that staff already existed at MGM. It made a seamlessly easy move to merge UA into MGM. As of today, MGM TV now has many more shows, a lot of network hit shows.

What are your goals with MGM?

To keep doing what I’ve been doing fairly well for a long time, and to try to find great franchises — things we can have foreign rights to and sell around the world. I’ll be doing that now with a much bigger support system and a deeper bench. Gary Barber is very nimble in the way he thinks. I really have enjoyed that experience. That’s something I never had. I’ve been a bit more of a lone wolf prior to this. And so it’s been a very good experience for me to have the access to a deeper bench of executives.

Any specifics on the kind content you’re looking for?

I think we’re due for a big, non-fiction competition franchise, which we’re developing all the time. I’m excited for what’s coming — something that’s already done and not yet announced. On the scripted side with Steve Stark, we’re looking at MGM’s libraries and seeing what’s there with the intellectual property, and what we can create new scripted shows from. We’re very much open for business. There are things we’ll be announcing soon.

In this era of “too much TV,” will it be easier to compete as the head of a studio?

I’ve tried to make high-quality, repeatable franchises that try to get renewed season after season. That’s been how I’ve run my business. I’ll have so much more success with it now under the MGM umbrella, in that a lot will be taken off of my shoulders. I’ll have a much bigger back office and bench to help me. I don’t know that there’s too much TV. I feel that we’re getting so many offers to create stuff. There are now 50 digital outlets that want content. In the last 12 months, more than ever in my career, there are more opportunities to make content and to have it monetized and paid for in ways that weren’t really thought of before. The demand for video is through the roof. People want high quality content. And that’s where we come in.

What do you anticipate the industry’s response will be?

Nothing changes, really. It’s me doing what I do. I’ve worked with Steve Stark a lot, and now I get to work with him full-time. I’m looking forward to making a lot more scripted shows together. I tend to be more network-focused. I’m very four-quadrant in my thinking. But there are now many more services that want a specific audience, shows that match what certain buyers want to watch. It’s a fractured market.

Does Hearst still have any piece of your business or are they out entirely?

It’s been a great experience with Hearst. That was the first time I ever accepted any money and invited any partners in. It was great for them, great for us. We’re still going to be in business with Hearst with the over-the-top faith and family service which Roma will head up. Hearst will still be our partner in that.

What are your goals for Lightworks, the faith and family service?

We’re interviewing now for someone to run the division. We’re very excited about it. The demand is greater than ever for faith and family programming. If you look back to ’13, the “Bible” series opened up the floodgates of possibilities. There are enormous numbers of people who are looking for family-friendly and faith content. It’s an underserved audience. We’ll be launching it in ’16. We don’t have a hard date. But that will be our goal.

What did you learn from “The Dovekeepers,” which disappointed in the ratings?

It was up against tough competition. It was a subject when you look at Masada, not enough people know about it. The Bible was much better known, obviously. But “The Dovekeepers” was one of my favorite books and we really enjoyed making it. Not everything becomes the biggest hit and it probably was a little bit sexy.

What makes a show stand out in this competitive climate?

It depends where. We’re having a great year with “The Voice,” “Survivor,” “Shark Tank.” The commonality of all the shows are it’s easy, primetime, fun viewing. We have a show coming up called “America’s Great Makers.” It’s fully funded by Intel, airing on TBS. It’s a fun show, based on who out there in America is toiling away in their garage or their bedroom with a great tech idea, but they just don’t have the juice to make it happen. If Intel likes the idea, they will come in with their microchips and their juice. But what’s interesting is it will mainly be on digital platforms more than television. That’s a way for me to think about a lot of my content: How can you make a show that has extensions. When people get voted off “Survivor,” they go to a holding place called “The Ponderosa.” The content coming out of ponderosa is really loved, and it’s a behind-the-scenes video element that extends the show.

What can you reveal about the upcoming “Celebrity Apprentice” with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the new host?

I’m going to be very excited to see what his line is: is he going to say “You’re fired!” or “You’re terminated!” I’m excited to find out myself. That’s something he’ll decide. He’s been great to work with. It’s going to be great shooting in Los Angeles. He might be saying, “You won’t be back!”

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