Sunday, March 28, 2004
New York Every Friday morning when the Nielsen numbers come in for the previous night, Mark Burnett's credentials as one of the most powerful creative forces in television grow stronger.
CBS' "Survivor" is the granddaddy of reality games, a Burnett production that's still a top-10 show in its eighth edition.
When that ends, Burnett switches channels for "The Apprentice," the show that's made Donald Trump a TV star and given anxious NBC executives reason to believe their Thursday schedule won't collapse after "Friends" ends in May.
For the two biggest networks, Burnett has a significant bottom-line impact on what is generally considered the most profitable night in television.
"It might be considered scandalous or even blasphemous, but he should be considered on the level of a Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley or Dick Wolf," said Michael Davies, executive producer of ABC's "Super Millionaire."
To be mentioned in the same breath as the creators of "NYPD Blue," "The Practice" and "Law & Order" is rarified air for any TV producer.
What makes it blasphemous to some in the industry is that no producer who's made his name in non-scripted programming has ever been considered in league with those titans.
Burnett's not only there, the former British paratrooper is furiously planning to expand -- into scripted television, feature films, even Broadway.
"He brings a level of quality to every one of his shows that's the same as John Wells, Dick Wolf and Jerry Bruckheimer," said NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker. "He's absolutely in their class. They're the best producers working in television today."
What distinguishes those producers, Burnett said, is that when they're given a job, they're likely to deliver what they promise.
"In that case, I'd like to think that I deliver on my promises," he said.
His agreement a few weeks back with NBC for "The Contender," is further evidence of his stature. To win a bidding war for the boxing series, which will feature Ray Leonard, Sylvester Stallone and George Foreman watching over amateur pugilists, NBC agreed to what was reportedly the richest deal ever for a new unscripted series. It's scheduled to begin January.
Burnett moved to Los Angeles in 1982 after leaving the British military, where he fought in the Falklands War. His first job was as a nanny, an experience soon-to-be immortalized in "Commando Nanny," a sitcom pilot that will be Burnett's first venture into scripted television.
He sold T-shirts in Venice Beach, sold insurance and had a credit card marketing job. He still had a taste for adventure, though, and created the "Eco-Challenge" television series.
Villains a specialty
When "Survivor" started, Burnett hit the jackpot.
People in television say a Burnett show is marked by lush production values, strong plots and a keen eye for characters. It's not a coincidence that villains like Richard Hatch and Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth emerged from his series.
"He's great with casting," said film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, maker of the "CSI" series. "He gets very interesting people on his shows and that makes great drama. He's doing an amazing job."
Burnett, 43, considers the term "reality TV" lazy or incorrect.
"What I do is simple storytelling," he said. "It may be unscripted. It may not be acted, but it's storytelling. I only choose projects that I'm passionate about. My actions are congruent with my passions."
He's also an adept businessman. For "The Contender," Burnett reportedly bought advertising time from NBC at a reduced rate -- which he can later sell for a profit -- and secured merchandising rights. He also arranges for product-placement advertising in his shows.
In January, speaking to reporters in a Hollywood hotel, Burnett remarked that he had no deal with CBS for future "Survivor" editions. That annoyed CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, who was standing in the audience. But the two left the room and immediately struck a deal in the hotel lobby.
One television executive -- with a shark's admiration -- noted how Burnett had recently overstated his licensing fee in a newspaper article, thereby setting the bar higher for future negotiations.
"He makes considerably more than any other producer in the medium," Davies said.
Burnett also is making "Eden," a scripted drama for NBC about people shipwrecked on an island; "Global Frequency," a pilot for a spy drama; and another unscripted series for CBS that he's not talking about. He's also developing two religious novels for movie projects and considering a Broadway show.
The biggest concern, it would seem, is whether Burnett spreading himself too thin. Will the shows maintain their quality when he has so much to do?
Zucker is counting on it. Burnett comes up with the idea for a series, sets the template and casts it, then hands it off to a veteran staff that runs the show, he said.
"There's no one running any of my shows that hasn't come through the ranks," Burnett said. "No one walks in here and takes a job without paying their dues."
There's that military background. Burnett has a precisely organized mind, a strong work ethic and a simple structure for what's becoming a big business, Davies said. Davies, another active producer with 11 programs in the works, doesn't doubt his competitor can handle it.
"It's a lot easier than getting shot at by Argentineans," he said.