How the Reality TV King Created 11 Popular Shows and Counting

Mark Burnett on The Voice, The Bible and that epic beard

As of a couple of weeks ago, Mark Burnett's schedule for the week of May 11 was still surprisingly unfilled. "It's funny, but I haven't been invited to an upfront yet," says the prolific producer, looking ahead to the culmination of upfront season when the broadcast networks finally unveil their fall schedules. "Maybe we'll just stay home!"

Don't bet on it.

The most powerful producer in television will be plenty busy all that week, wooing advertisers and media buyers in New York. After all, Burnett is responsible for an astounding 11 network programs, on CBS (Survivor and the People's Choice Awards), NBC (The Voice, Celebrity Apprentice, The Sing-Off, A.D. The Bible Continues—the follow-up to The Bible, his massively successful 2013 History miniseries—and Angels Unveiled, his scripted pilot hoping for a series order), ABC (Shark Tank and spinoff Beyond the Tank, premiering May 1, plus new game show 500 Questions, which debuts May 20) and Fox (Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, which returns May 26 after a long hiatus).

Then, there are cable shows Lucha Underground on El Rey and upcoming Answered Prayers on TLC.
 And his empire just keeps expanding. A few years ago, he joined forces with his wife Roma Downey to create LightWorkers Media, which focuses on faith and family projects like The Bible and A.D.

As CEO of United Artists Media Group (the company formed last September when MGM acquired a 55 percent interest in Burnett, Downey and Hearst Entertainment's One Three Media and LightWorkers Media), he's also branched into film, with last year's Son of God and next year's Ben-Hur reboot. "I could make a lot more," says Burnett. "I just only do things I like." 

And things a lot of other people like, too. In the last month alone, Burnett's series have won in adults 18-49 on five nights of the week: Sunday (A.D. The Bible Continues), Monday (The Voice), Tuesday (The Voice), Wednesday (Survivor, which now in its 30th season, routinely dominates time-slot competitor American Idol) and Friday (Shark Tank). The British producer has come a long way since arriving in the U.S. in 1982 when he worked as a nanny and sold T-shirts in Venice Beach, Calif., before launching his first show, the reality competition Eco-Challenge, in 1995. Five years later, he debuted Survivor, and he hasn't looked back since, having fully realized the American dream that lured him here at 22.

Burnett will pitch nine shows at this year's upfronts. Illustration: Jessie Lenz

"There's two things that built America: the Bible and free enterprise," Burnett says. "And now I do both. I do A.D. and I do Shark Tank."

As the upfronts approach, Burnett talked to Adweek about the upfront past and present, the secret to juggling all those projects, and how he and Downey may be preparing to give Netflix a run for its money.

Adweek: What's the biggest reason for your success over these last two decades?

Burnett: First, you have to come up with a good idea and get someone to pay for it. The second thing is to execute it to the level or above what they're expecting. Then there's a third level that a lot of people forget: You have to market it and micromanage the press and the marketing campaigns. You've got to remember all three of those things.

You've proven time and again that shows with family appeal can perform incredibly well. Had you been pushing for that formula all along or did it evolve?

I'd only ever really made family-friendly content. And for 10 years, my wife played an angel on [the CBS drama series] Touched by an Angel. So as a family, we've always made family-friendly content, and it's worked out very well for us. We seek what's known as four-quadrant audiences—male, female, young and old—and family-friendly is the best four-quadrant.