Dateline / Nbc
Mark Burnett
Dateline NBC
updated 4/16/2004 7:50:56 PM ET 2004-04-16T23:50:56

Why do so many Americans watch The Apprentice? Is it the colorful contestants, or Donald Trump, the billionaire mogul who holds their fate in his hands? For many, it's the sheer suspense of seeing who's going to survive. That's the trademark of someone who never actually takes a seat in that boardroom. He doesn't do the firing, but as Josh Mankiewicz reports, he's the real boss of "The Apprentice."

From the rainforests off Panama to the urban jungle, from the gamble of starting a restaurant to the high rollers on the casino floor, the man calling the shots is producer Mark Burnett.

At 44, with hit shows now occupying prime real estate on three major networks, the boyish Burnett has made an only-in-America jump from expatriate to mogul. These days, the biggest names in entertainment want to make deals with him.

It's been quite a journey from 1982, when Burnett, a paratrooper in her majesty's armed services, came to the U.S. fresh from the Falklands War. Even today's life of luxury in Malibu hasn't erased the lessons of this soldier's story.

Josh Mankiewicz: “What made you want to become an American?”     

Mark Burnett: “The American dream. I grew up watching ‘Dallas,’ you know, and American shows. ‘MASH,’ ‘Charlie's Angels.’ So you feel like an affinity with America.  When you come here as a foreigner, you have an expectation, the big cars, the big roads, the big lives.”

But when Burnett landed in Los Angeles, the only work he could find was as a live-in nanny, taking care of someone else's children.

Burnett: “It was a real welcome to America. And I found that being part of the family as well, I understood American values much better. And American values are generosity, openness, and giving a chance.

And it wasn't long until Burnett was leading one of those big lives he'd dreamt about. Starting off as a contestant in the exhausting adventure race called “Raid Gauloise,” Burnett graduated to producing the televised race called “Eco-Challenge,” where he learned how to create a shory line without a script, by introducing the audience to real-life characters they could root for or against at home.

That experience spawned “Survivor” on CBS, the first hit reality show. It's a term that still makes Burnett bristle.

Mankiewicz: “What's the word you want to use?”

Burnett: “I think it's unscripted dramas. I don't like the word reality, because I think it's a lazy journalistic term with lack of thought.”

Mankiewicz: “You don't like it because reality TV, to some people, means low rent?”      

Burnett: “Like, oh, it's reality TV. Oh my god, that's reality."

Command central for the burgeoning Burnett TV empire is often here at home. Deals worth millions are made at the kitchen counter, or for that matter, anywhere else the Blackberry and cell phone reach.

Beyond the financing, Burnett is intimately involved in every aspect of his productions, from conjuring up the newest "unscripted drama," to the look and tone of each show.

But the secret ingredient in a Burnett hit is the casting. More than a quarter of a million people applied to be on season two of The Apprentice. His staff reduces that crowd of Trump "wannabes" to a couple of hundred, and then Burnett and his lieutenants make the final choices.

Mankiewicz: “What are you looking for?”

Burnett: “It's just instincts. It's just instinctual with us.”

Mankiewicz: “You're picking one person, but really counts here is not just who they are but how they're going to interact with the other people.”

Burnett: “You can't predict that. That's not possible to predict. You can only choose 16 highly motivated A-type people who are use to being the leader of their peer group. Suddenly they're in a group of 15 other people who are also leaders. That's the fireworks… People think, oh, you cast Ehreka and Omarosa because they're opposite and they'd fight. Who the hell knew?”

Mankiewicz: “Is it possible to have too much personality on this show?”

Burnett: “Well, too much personality gets you fired… All my shows are based on rituals, because people like rituals.”

Whether it's being fired or voted off the island because the tribe has spoken, Burnett calls these ritualistic anchoring moments. You might call it the coining of a national catch-phrase, but the reality is that more than 40 million people tune in to watch Burnett's unscripted dramas unfold each week, and he's proud that those numbers come without gratuitous sex, nudity, or trying to gross out the audience. And there's no secret twist to finish the competition. This is social Darwinism with commercial breaks. And it works.

Burnett: “There's a level of fun involved in other people's misery. And that's the cynical side of us all. What you don't need to do is maximize it to make someone feel horrified and humiliated. I don't do that.”

And as he created a new hit, Burnett remade Donald Trump.

Mankiewicz:He made you cool. I mean he gave you a whole audience that you probably never had before.”

Donald Trump: “Well, it's a different audience. I mean I have little kids coming up asking for my autograph.”

It's a process Burnett hopes to repeat next year when NBC launches "The Contender" with Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard, a show that will chronicle boxers on their way to the ring.

Sylvester Stallone: “That's Mark Burnett, see, that's what he's about. Mark Burnett is totally into that. I mean, business, is business cool? Not really. It's hard, cut-throat, it's rough. And it breaks a lot of hearts. Yet, with Donald and The Apprentice, it's not so much about the business. It's the interplay between these people. So he is in the human nature business.”

Whether boxing will work won't be known for a while. It will be the newest challenge for a producer whose TV career has become a version of one of those adventure races Mark Burnett used to compete in. "The Apprentice" is now on Thursdays, an acknowledgement that Burnett's ode to the American dream is a hit.

Burnett: “So, for me, the reality guy, yeah okay, to be on a Thursday night.”

Mankiewicz: “That still stings, doesn't it?”

Burnett: “I don't like it. You know and I'm a feisty guy. So, I'll tell you. I don't like it. But, you know, I'm on Thursday nights. I'm shoulder to shoulder with ‘Friends,’ ‘Will and Grace’…”

Mankiewicz: “It's the big leagues.”

Burnett: “It's the big leagues, you know. And there's nothing like biting off more than you can chew and chew it anyway.”

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