Mark Burnett has produced some of the most successful and longest-running shows on television. An adventure and competition enthusiast, he created Eco-Challenge in the mid-’90s, and, inspired by a Swedish reality show, he executive produced Survivor, which premiered in 2000 and is still airing on CBS. Today, Burnett is the chairman of the MGM Worldwide Television Group, which has a wide range of shows across broadcast and cable networks in the U.S., including The Voice on NBC, Shark Tank and Steve Harvey’s Funderdome on ABC, Jamie Foxx’s Beat Shazam on FOX, Fargo on FX and Vikings on HISTORY. In addition, The Handmaid’s Tale has won multiple awards and made the streaming service Hulu a destination for high-end scripted series. Burnett remade the boxing competition series The Contender for EPIX, MGM’s linear and nonlinear channel, and he is in the process of bringing Eco-Challenge back to life. Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, also produce family programming under the banner LightWorkers Media. He shares with World Screen his strategies for MGM’s programming.
WS: What’s your vision for MGM Worldwide Television?
BURNETT: Global domination. The question is how! We are known for very high quality. If you look at all the studios in Hollywood right now, MGM has more successful TV shows than any other studio. From the point of view of our reality programming, we are winning Monday nights with The Voice. We win Tuesday nights again with The Voice. Survivor on Wednesdays is pretty much unbeaten at 8 o’clock in the 18-to-49 demographic. On Thursday nights, Beat Shazam with Jamie Foxx got picked up for season three, which is fantastic. Friday nights we have Kevin Hart on TKO: Total Knock Out. And Sunday nights we have Shark Tank. So, on six nights out of seven, we are dominant on American TV.
In terms of our unscripted cable programming, we’ve got The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Vanderpump Rules, all from Evolution Media. They have several other shows in the works, and all are doing very, very well. Then we have Live PD, which comes from Big Fish Entertainment, our other acquisition.
And on the scripted side, we expect to go into production on the fourth installment of Fargo in 2019 with Chris Rock starring. Vikings is still very dominant. The Handmaid’s Tale got picked up for season three and Condor, which airs on AT&T Audience Network, got picked up for season two.
Lately, in Los Angeles, I see fantastic billboards for The Contender on EPIX, which is our boxing competition series and probably the highest-quality work I’ve ever done personally.
WS: You’ve always loved The Contender. What do you find so appealing, and how has it been reimagined now?
BURNETT: A lot of it goes back to when I first started it with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sylvester Stallone. I got to know Sly, and I’ve continued to be friends with him. He said to me, The reason why Rocky worked wasn’t just the boxing. It was the relationships. If you watch the movie again and see during the fights how Adrian is in such pain watching her man getting punched, it is the best part of the storytelling. I took that on board, and when I created the first season of The Contender, I focused on the families. I’ve done that right through this current season. Very few boxers come from well-to-do families; typically, they come from poor families. They are fighting so that their families can have a better life, because it’s super tough as a sport. It’s those stories; it’s the emotional connection that we are able to make—that’s why I love The Contender so much. It’s so raw; it’s so real. There is no voting off. There is no one who is going to win the singing contest. This is an actual sport with unedited fights. You have no clue who’s going to win each week. It’s all down to two men in the ring. And Andre Ward is hosting season five. He recently retired as an undisputed world champion in two weight divisions and a gold medalist in the [light heavyweight weight class] at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He’s an amazing person. I’m so privileged to work with him.
WS: Since the days of Eco-Challenge and then Survivor, how have you seen adventure competition shows evolve, and what do viewers expect today?
BURNETT: As I mentioned earlier, Survivor has been unbeaten for 18 years on network television at 8 o’clock. It’s authentic. The conditions are completely real, and it strips away the veneer that you may have on yourself as you interact with other people. As that veneer is stripped away, your true emotions are revealed. It’s true surviving while playing a very complicated mental game. It’s almost like playing three-dimensional chess. You are exhausted, and other people may want to vote you out. You have to figure out who they are and change their minds. In the case of Eco-Challenge, it was my show that preceded Survivor; in fact, I won my first Emmy in 1998 for it. We’re about to bring that show back. Bear Grylls has signed on to host Eco-Challenge in its next iteration.
WS: Are unscripted shows better suited to linear channels, or do you see opportunities on streaming services as well?
BURNETT: Absolutely in streaming. There is a whole new [TV landscape] now, where the cream will always rise to the top. The one thing I’ve been focused on as I’ve grown MGM TV—from a couple of shows when I came to about 800 hours of television right now—is quality. Television is the biggest division at MGM. When I said global domination, I was half kidding, but if you want to be dominant globally, you have to have quality. What people care about is how good the shows are. Everything we make is top quality, and that’s because I look for showrunners and producers who are better than me. I think I’m a good producer, but I seek out people who are better than me, and I give them the means and encouragement to succeed. My version of being a CEO is Chief Encouragement Officer!
WS: What message has The Handmaid’s Tale sent to the creative community?
BURNETT: The Handmaid’s Tale certainly resonated globally, no question. Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel from 33 years ago is as relevant today, in the way that Bruce Miller wrote it and our team of directors brings it to life, as it was then. What’s great is its fresh [approach]. There are lots of retreads of things. The Handmaid’s Tale is unlike anything that came before, and that’s very important. MGM’s unscripted business is run by Barry Poznick. I’ve made thousands of hours of unscripted programming with him, and he’s best in class. And Steve Stark runs the scripted division. He has great taste and has a great team under him and is also best in class. If you look at The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Get Shorty, Vikings, the reviews on these shows are outstanding. They are a great business economically, and they are also critics’ darlings.
WS: You’re making Condor for AT&T Audience Network. Is there other IP in the library that can be remade for today’s audience?
BURNETT: Yes, we have a great deep library with fantastic IP. We are always looking, no question, but we’re also doing more fresh stuff as well. We’ve got Get Shorty and Fargo, which came out of the library. On EPIX we’ve also got Deep State, which did so well. And coming in 2019 there will be Pennyworth, which is the DC origin story of Batman’s [butler, Alfred]. Then we’ve got Godfather of Harlem, starring and produced by Forest Whitaker and directed by John Ridley.
WS: MGM has also made a foray into Spanish-language programming with the Gato Grande venture. I’ve been watching Luis Miguel, La Serie. I’m enjoying it.
BURNETT: I’m so proud of that series. It was the most talked-about series of the decade in Latin America; it was so well received. We’re now looking at the possibility of doing a season two. We are very confident in making more Spanish-language programming. I think it’s fair to say that the Luis Miguel series set a brand-new high standard in Spanish-language television series.
WS: What plans do you have for faith-based and family programming?
BURNETT: LightWorkers Media is a huge focus right now. Roma is the president of LightWorkers Media, which is a division of MGM. We feel strongly about a faith-and-family direct-to-consumer brand. We do have LightTV, the first-ever, 24/7 faith-and-family broadcast entertainment network, which is distributed by FOX owned-and-operated stations, as well as other faith-based broadcasters and is doing well. Roma spent the last year and a half combing through the MGM library to make sure that all the movies that air on LightTV have no nudity, no excessive violence and no explicit language. This is what that channel stands for.
Roma has wrapped a series called The Baxters, which she stars in, for the LightWorkers platform. The series is based on Karen Kingsbury’s bestselling literary collection. She has sold more than 25 million copies of her books worldwide. It is the first [scripted drama] series for the LightWorkers platform.
WS: I remember from a previous interview you said that when you first arrived in the U.S., you were a nanny and you sold T-shirts on the beach.
BURNETT: I was a nanny and a servant. That was on 624 North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. I was earning only about $100 a week. Now, as the chairman of MGM Worldwide Television, my office is at 245 North Beverly Drive, and from my office window, I can see the house where I was a servant!
WS: When you were selling T-shirts, were there sales skills that you picked up that have served you throughout your career as a producer?
BURNETT: Completely. At that point, I was a working-class boy who had never sold anything. I had been in the army. Then I’d been a servant in a house. I wasn’t sure I knew how to sell. I was scared. What the T-shirt selling taught me was that I was able to communicate and sell. One big thing I learned was that every person is different. You break people down into categories. If you have the same sales approach for everybody, you’ll fail. You need to find out a little bit about the person and need to understand them. Are they a scientific-type person? Scientific-engineering-type people want to hear a lot of facts before buying something. Are they an artistic-type person? An artistic person does not want to hear all the technical facts. They want to know how it feels, how it looks, what the fabric is. And then if you have people who are very much leaders, you’re far better off letting them lead in the sale. And then there are people who are followers and they want to be gently led into a sale. There are more levels than that, but it taught me to pay attention to the person I’m dealing with to make sure I’m serving their needs in order to create a transaction.