How the Reality TV King Created 11 Popular Shows and Counting

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

Headshot of Jason Lynch

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.


Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, created LightWorkers Media. Photo: Mark Mann

The Bible ended up being the most-watched cable mini-series of 2013 and led to A.D., and now faith-based programming is the next big thing in Hollywood. But how tough of a sell was that project five years ago?

I think The Bible was a hard sell only because people didn't really realize that the audience would tune in for The Bible on prime-time TV. Also, there was a little insular thinking within New York and Los Angeles, where the decisions are made, that it wasn't cool. I think people are spending too much time trying to be cool and not enough time trying to get an audience. Clearly, no one is making that mistake again. And to her credit, Nancy Dubuc [the former History boss who is now A+E Networks president and CEO] bought The Bible in the room within 30 minutes, and a dozen other places passed.

So why did you opt to go with NBC over History for A.D.?

One thing we learned for two years in a row—each year we did about 30 cities, about 60 screenings for The Bible and then Son of God, and we've done the same thing again for A.D.—is many people don't have cable. They can't afford cable. And a lot of people were upset to not be able to see it. A.D. is the story of the birth of a faith that has gone from 12 apostles to 2.5 billion people. This is a subject that should be on broadcast television.

The Bible was a miniseries, but how long could A.D. go for?

It's intended to go many, many years. A.D. could become NBC's Game of Thrones.

Has anything changed for you since becoming CEO of United Artists Media Group?

Day to day, nothing has changed. And [MGM CEO] Gary Barber, as with Hearst before, said, "Hey, just keep doing what you're doing." Hearst invested in us in 2011, and then MGM invested in the group and changed the name in 2014. Nobody invests in something like that and then asks you to change it. We're going to make lots of different shows, lots of different movies and grow our digital. We have a digital business called Vimby—Video in My Backyard—which makes a lot of commercials. Up until a couple of years ago, almost every commercial you saw from Walmart, we made.

How do you juggle everything?

I'm not really juggling. I've got a really good team of people, and a lot of them have worked for me for the entire time. The key is to always hire people who are better than you.

But how do you focus on one show with so many others demanding attention?

It's not always easy to do, but the correct way to approach everything is like we're sitting here right now: This is it. So whatever I'm working on is where my focus is. And I can work on three things in a day, but when I'm there, I'm there. The definition of a loser is someone who takes a nap and then feels guilty about it. Do what you're doing. If you're going to take a nap, take a nap. If you're going to work, work.

The British producer arrived in the U.S. in 1982 and worked as a nanny and sold T-shirts in Venice Beach, Calif. Photo: Mark Mann

Another hallmark of your shows is their ability to sustain the quality over time. Audiences are still really engaged with Survivor and Shark Tank after all these years. How have you been able to avoid the problems of reality shows that start to feel stale after several years?

It's the team. There's a certain esprit de corps—it's a military word in that when you're playing on a top team, you play better. How much do you think people would like to have a hit show? You can work on one of 500 shows, but if you're the person working on The Voice or Survivor or Shark Tank or The Bible or A.D. and on and on, it feels great to go home and say, "Hey, we just won another game!" It's really good to play on those teams. So it's less about me; it's more about them. All I've done is create the culture.

Do you remember your first upfront?

My first broadcast upfront was Survivor [in 2001] after its first season. It wasn't pre-Survivor because I presold the advertising on Survivor, along with Jo Ann Ross [now president, CBS sales] and Chris Simon [now evp, CBS sales], at the behest of [network CEO] Leslie Moonves. We had 51 million viewers in the [Season 1] finale, and then in 2001 I was onstage at Carnegie Hall and Leslie brought out Gloria Gaynor to sing "I Will Survive." It was unbelievable!

What is your relationship with advertisers like at this point? Do your shows almost sell themselves because of your name and track record?

Shows don't sell themselves. We're judged every morning on ratings—it doesn't matter who you are. Yes, we do have a very good name, and we are reliable and we'll get the chance to be at bat, but it doesn't mean the advertisers are going to flock to our shows. The shows had better be good. We're lucky the last few years; we seem to have a lot of things that work.

You're producing Ben-Hur in addition to all your TV projects. Do you want to make more movies going forward?

We want to say yes to a lot, but we have a business to run. We strategically need to do some math and analyze. There's got to be a checklist of, OK, what are all the things that you think are worthy of United Artists and LightWorkers? How long would it take, and who would you deliver this to? What would it cost to make it? What's the profit basis of this? But yes, we will make films. Yes, we will make shows. Yes, we might do a Broadway show. Yes, I've got a digital business we need to grow. It's all content-related. As long as it's emotionally engaging and appropriate for what our brand is.

Burnett started growing his beard last year during Lent. Photo: Mark Mann

How much longer do you think The Voice can stick with two cycles per year?

Well, how long has Survivor gone?

Fifteen years.

There you go. Survivor is doing better than last year; it's beating [Fox's American] Idol. So it's not a time limit thing, it's a "how good is it?" limit thing. On a cost basis versus advertiser-engagement level, does the math work out? One thing I think we're quite clever at is keeping costs down, so I believe The Voice can go twice a year for as long as the audience likes it.

Is there anything else you wish you were involved in?

If I wasn't doing what I'm doing, I would honestly love to run an ad agency. I love the idea of making commercials. I love the idea of winning. Imagine if you're clever enough to create a campaign and stuff flies off the shelves. That's why I love The Apprentice. I'd love to be more in the advertising business.

A lot of your colleagues are now making shows for streaming services like Netflix. Is that something you've considered?

Yes, no question. But we're very interested in having our own OTT service. This is something we've been actively working on for three years.

What would that look like?

We'd be curating the entire service and producing some of it. In the same model as a Netflix, you'd need an anchor series every year. We'll do a nonfiction series.

If you just took all the shows you're producing, you'd have one hell of a lineup.

But that would also be the definition of stupidity because that would mean we're assuming that we're the best. Trust me, we're going to find people who are way better than us. We have 2,500 employees, we have all these shows running, and we're sitting here hanging out with you. The reason is because the people who are making the shows are better than we are. Otherwise, we'd just be making one thing.

Before we wrap up, I have to ask about your impressive beard. What prompted it?

It was the beginning of Lent last year, and I just decided it was time. I thought I would keep it for six weeks, and it's a year later.

Photography: Mark Mann; Hair: Arturo Swayze for Oribe Haircare; Makeup: Eve Pearl; Grooming: Jessi Butterfield for Exclusive Artists Mgmt using Talika and Alterna Hair Care

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.