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MGM Television Banks on Big Stars and Strong Storytelling to Drive Growth

Mark Burnett took the reins of MGM Television and Digital just in time to steer the independent television studio through the choppy waters of digital disruption. Good thing he’s not a traditional studio executive.

“We’re in an interesting equilateral triangle right now,” Burnett says of the changing business landscape for content producers. “We’re going down a road where all the studios will soon be dealing directly with consumers.”

The silo effect of such global platforms as Netflix and Amazon buying up worldwide rights and increasingly producing shows in-house will make it harder for studios the size of MGM TV to prosper with high-end content. The upside is limited when a studio doesn’t have the ability to sell a show in markets around the world.

This is a big part of the reason MGM shelled out $1 billion last year to buy out its partners, Viacom and Lionsgate, in the Epix premium cable channel. Epix has been streaming since its inception in 2009 and could easily be the spine of an MGM direct-to-consumer service. MGM TV at present is using Epix as a U.S. launch pad for series such as “Get Shorty,” a redo of a film property from the MGM vault, and the upcoming boxing-competition series “The Contender” (a revival of Burnett’s previous NBC series), and the miniseries  “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair,” starring Patrick Dempsey.

Burnett, who is a keynote speaker at Variety’s annual TV Summit on June 13, is well equipped to tackle the challenge because he thinks, first and foremost, as a producer.

The superstar impresario behind “The Voice,” “Survivor,” “Shark Tank,” “The Bible,” and other hits remains a hands-on producer of a slate of primetime hits. He was named president of MGM Television and Digital late 2015 after the studio bought out the remaining interest in Burnett’s One Three Media banner.

“Working with Mark is a pleasure. He has a gift for what makes amazing, compelling TV,” “Shark Tank” panelist Mark Cuban says. “I do what I can to absorb as much of his knowledge as possible.”

The biggest challenge now is balancing what Burnett calls the “duality” of the production business at present. MGM TV has scored, under the leadership of TV production and development president Steve Stark, with the scripted series such as Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (the reigning Emmy drama champ), FX’s “Fargo” franchise and History’s “Vikings.” With Epix now firmly in the mix, it’s a balancing act to determine how to best allocate the studio’s resources and energy.

“Obviously we have a good business where we’re providing for many [buyers] all the time, and now we’re making really good stuff for ourselves,” Burnett says. “As we go on I think you’ll probably see more and more [TV companies] making shows for their own platforms.”

In Burnett’s view, the key to breaking through with new shows in a TV world awash in content is rooted in two things: stars and storytelling. On Burnett’s watch, MGM TV has brought such industry heavyweights as Jamie Foxx to Fox’s “Beat Shazam” music quiz show, Steve Harvey for ABC’s seed-funding competition series “Funderdome” and Kevin Hart as host of CBS’ upcoming obstacle-course competition series “TKO.” Personalities of Hart and Foxx’s magnitude are essential when viewers have hundreds of options to choose from on linear and streaming platforms.

“There is no question star power is important,” Burnett says. The chase for talent is ever more intense, and prices are rising with so much demand. “There are more projects than there are stars,” he says. “It’s more important than ever to get the right talent attached to the right projects.”

Burnett sees his job as studio head as not much different from his role as a producer. Once the program is assembled and financed, the main goal of a producer is to maintain a working environment that allows creative talent to deliver their best work.

“The producer is the first one in and the last one out,” Burnett says. “Your job is to make everything easy for your stars to do their best work. It’s your job to protect the talent from distractions and anything that’s not useful for the production.”

Hart was persuaded to front CBS’ “TKO: Total Knock Out,” which bows July 11, in part because of Burnett’s track record as an innovator in unscripted TV.

‘I wanted to work on ‘TKO’ and with Mark because it has the potential to be one of the biggest shows ever on an international level,” Hart says. “My experience with MGM has been nothing short of amazing.”

MGM’s scripted operation, led by Steve Stark, MGM’s president of production and development, has also made huge strides in recent years with the success of such series as FX’s “Fargo,” History’s “Vikings,” and the pop culture sensation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“This is a terribly interesting time to work in television. Somewhere between the highway and hell, you might say,” “Get Shorty” star Chris O’Dowd says. “I was attracted to (“Get Shorty”) because he was not a character I had ever played before. MGM gave me the freedom to show authentic emotion while still being menacing.”

“Handmaid’s” star and producer Elisabeth Moss credits MGM with taking a risk on a show that found itself in the right place at the right time to be part of the latest wave of female empowerment initiatives.

“We are making history right now, as women, as people, today, in this age we are delivering real stories, our stories. June’s story is one of them. I couldn’t imagine a greater way to be a part of this movement than to play this resilient and brave character,” Moss says. “Working with MGM has given me the opportunity to use June’s voice to speak out for the resistance both on screen and off screen.”

(Pictured: Mark Burnett)

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