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Reality check: Mark Burnett’s kingdom

Mark Burnett, king of reality TV, has survived a litany of flops. Now he's betting on movies and new fare for the Internet.
Mark Burnett
Despite some recent shows that tanked, Mark Burnett sees the glass half full: "I've been very fortunate. I've had 3 hits. Some producers never get one."Phil Mccarten / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: Forbes

On a Spring morning in Los Angeles Mark Burnett — the most prolific, most successful producer of reality TV since the genre overtook television nearly a decade ago — stifles a yawn and pores over the overnight ratings for the premiere of his latest entry, the heavily promoted Fox show "On the Lot." The window blinds in his office are drawn against the dazzling southern California sun, and Burnett's outfit — jeans, black shirt, black pinstriped blazer — is fittingly somber, for the numbers are deadly.

The show, coproduced by the powerful Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and featuring would-be filmmakers competing for a million-dollar movie deal — drew all of 7.6 million viewers and lost 70 percent of the audience of its lead-in, American Idol, the most-watched series on TV. On the Lot continues to struggle: A week after its debut the show had only 4 million viewers, and Fox recently trimmed it from a planned twice-weekly run to just once a week.

Burnett, 46, made himself famous — and fabulously wealthy — producing CBS's "Survivor," one of the most popular reality shows in television history, and NBC's "The Apprentice," a top-ranked show in its first two years, which spawned Donald Trump's condemnation catchphrase: "You're fired!" But "On the Lot" is the latest in a string of disappointments for Burnett. "The Contender" (6.2 million viewers), "The Casino" (4.4 million) and "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" (6.5 million) all got yanked from network television after a single season.

This season a second Burnett series, "Pirate Master" on CBS, debuted unspectacularly, in part because it aired in the same time slot as a third Burnett rookie show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" That last entry — a quiz show rather than a video vérité series in the "Survivor" vein — is a much-needed hit for Burnett. It premiered in February and drew a startling 26 million viewers, the highest-rated premiere on network TV in eight years.

Even his powerhouses, however, are aging and ailing. "Survivor," though still a top 20 show, now gets half the 30 million viewers of its peak in 2001, despite resorting to publicity stunts (last year Burnett split up the tribes by race). "The Apprentice," at 21 million viewers in 2004, now draws 7 million, hurt by a move to Sunday nights at 10 p.m. "Even I'm asleep by then," says Trump. "It's tough when you don't want to watch yourself on network TV."

But this is a business measured more by the number of successes than by the percentage of successes. Burnett's oeuvre: 11 network series in 7 years and a total 550 hours of often gripping reality programming. "On the Lot" met expectations "from a business perspective," he says. "Did you know there are 50 new shows this summer?" He adds: "I've been very fortunate. I've had 3 hits. Some producers never get one."

Now Burnett is moving beyond reality and into scripted series and films, as well as new kinds of programming created for the Internet. He started last year by producing "Gold Rush," a pop-culture trivia show that got promoted in on-air clues embedded in cbs shows. It "aired" online on AOL, attracting 11 million people in a seven-week run. A second season is set for the fall. Burnett also is working with the online site MySpace on "Independent," a political reality show in which MySpace users will set tasks for candidates and vote on a winner, who will get $1 million to run for office or fund a political cause.

"He's created something entirely new: an Internet/reality-show hybrid," says David Verklin, chief of ad buyer Carat Americas.

Burnett is also producing a feature film with New Line Cinema, based on the children's book series "The Alchemyst," and "Avery House," a new series in development for the Sci Fi Channel. He had tried three scripted pilots for the old wb network a few years ago, but none got picked up. "It's very hard to break into scripted TV. One in 20 shows makes it big. I think now I've got more experience in storytelling," he says.

Some see a new bid for legitimacy in his expansion plans. "I think there's some part of Mark that feels like he's proven himself in the reality business," says Jordan Levin, cofounder of production company Generate, who worked with Burnett at the WB (now the CW network). "He's very ambitious and wants to take on new challenges."

Adds Laura Caraccioli-Davis of Publicis Groupe's Starcom media-buying firm: "To be truly respected in Hollywood, you have to be a scripted guy. Those producers make money for everyone — the actors, the talent agencies. If you make everyone money, they have to bow to you."

Burnett bristles at that notion: "Roughly half of the top ten shows on TV are reality shows. They'll remain the bulk of our business, and to suggest that I wouldn't want it that way is silly."

Burnett was born in East London, the son of a Ford Motor plant worker. He never went to college, instead joining the Special Air Service Regiment in the British Army; he served as a paratrooper in the Falklands War. In 1982, at age 22, he flew to Los Angeles aiming to become a military adviser in Central America. His mother talked him out of that plan. He arrived with no job prospects but quickly found work as a nanny for a wealthy family in Beverly Hills.

Two years later he began selling insurance, marketing credit cards and hawking T shirts on the boardwalk at Venice Beach, buying irregulars for $2 apiece and selling them for $18. "Mark Burnett could sell you the clothes you're already wearing," says Caraccioli-Davis. Like many in Los Angeles, he wanted to be a producer. In 1992 he got his first shot, buying U.S. rights to the "Raid Gauloises," an expedition-length adventure race. Burnett later renamed it the "Eco-Challenge" and, in a six-year run, sold TV rights to MTV, ESPN, the Discovery Channel and the USA Network, waiving his producer fee for a share of ad sales (a pitch he would use later, to great success).

In 1998 Burnett met Charlie Parsons, a British TV producer who had come up with an idea for a show in which unpaid contestants were stranded on a desert island and voted on who got eliminated, with the winner getting $1 million. Burnett bought the North American rights, named the show Survivor and shopped it to the four U.S. commercial broadcast networks, the Discovery Channel and the USA Network.

All of them turned him down. But a few months later CBS took a second look. In pitching CBS entertainment chief Leslie Moonves, as the writer Bill Carter recounts in his recent book "Desperate Networks," Burnett mocked up "Survivor" covers of Time and Newsweek (and both magazines later would put the show on their covers). Moonves bit, but he imposed tough terms: No matter what Burnett spent to produce Survivor, CBS would pay him a paltry fee of only $35,000 per episode; Burnett would have to make up the shortfall by pocketing half of the revenue from ads, which he had to help sell.

Survivor debuted in the summer of 2000 and fueled CBS' resurgence; 51 million viewers watched the first season's finale, the most watched reality episode ever. Burnett reaped a reported $10 million in the ad-sharing deal, to the dismay of CBS. The deal was revised after the first season, with the network retaining all ad sales — and paying Burnett a fee of $1 million per show.

Burnett also perfected a critical revenue model in the reality form: the on-air product plug. Contestants voted off the island in "Survivor" were immediately handed a bag of Doritos and a can of Mountain Dew. In his second hit, "The Apprentice," which debuted in 2004, episodes were built around embedded brands. Dial (a part of Henkel) used the show to launch two products last year.

In one episode the contestants had to design a Web launch for Soft Scrub Deep Clean Foaming Cleanser (the winning "Webisode" was used by Dial). In another, they made a commercial for an air freshener (Renuzit). Placements cost on average $1.5 million per episode. Dial returned easily double that in ad value, says ITVX, which computes a payoff ratio for product placements. In the three-year run of the show Burnett and Trump have split $100 million in product placement revenues.

Burnett also takes equity positions in companies whose products have appeared on his other shows, including Everlast, a sponsor of the boxing show "The Contender." (He got an undisclosed number of shares at $3 in 2004; today the stock is near $30.) Thus his deals ensure he makes money even when his shows don't last, a helpful feature given the short network runs of the boxing series (now on ESPN), "The Casino" (about two owners of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas) and "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart."

Now Burnett brings this penchant for product plugs to the online world. In making the online trivia show "Gold Rush" for AOL last fall, he partnered with CBS, which embedded clues in its prime-time shows. Onscreen a "vault" holding the gold was graced with sponsor Washington Mutual's logo. Contestants called friends for help on T-Mobile cell phones. The 11 million people who logged on to "Gold Rush" stayed an average of 16 minutes, close to the 22 minutes of content in a half-hour TV sitcom. "Gold Rush" cost $10 million to produce and raked in $25 million in ads.

In his move into scripted TV series and dramatic films, Burnett has gone outside his production company to sign up writers. "I like what I've been reading so far," he says. "The ideas are completely different from what you see onTV now."

But Hollywood movies hold the most allure. "I can't accurately tell you howTV will look in ten years. The time-shifting devices like TiVo will have a huge impact in coming years. But in ten years I bet I will still be going to a movie theater and buying popcorn and watching a movie."

He adds: "I'll admit that the idea of making Hollywood movies is very seductive."

Thus "On the Lot," despite its tepid ratings, has offered Burnett an important upside — the chance to work closely with Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful filmmakers in history. For "On the Lot" the director is on set nearly every day and is intimately involved in casting, set design and music. "It's been a really good experience for me," says Burnett, who now is working on a feature-film script for DreamWorks, in which Spielberg himself is an owner.

"I love telling stories," says Burnett. "In the end my job is delivering content that people want to watch. It doesn't matter what you label it."