Boldly moving from innovator to "survivor," he is the most original programmer in reality TV.
Twenty-five years after working as a nanny and peddling T-shirts on California's Venice Beach when he first came to the United States from England, Mark Burnett is well aware of how lucky he is.
Having now produced more than 600 hours of programming for broadcast television, the creative mind behind such massive network hits as Survivor and The Apprentice hasn't forgotten how big a deal it is simply to land a show on a network.
"Being given the privilege of an hour of network television is just that," he says. "You are expecting millions of Americans to devote an hour of their life to you. I understand the privilege and don't take it lightly."
Mark Burnett was born in London in 1960. At 17, he joined the British military and became a paratrooper, and in that role fought in the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982.
Later that year, he left the United Kingdom for Los Angeles. Having served in combat, Burnett then took another role that would help him one day prepare for dealing with network executives: He became a nanny in Beverly Hills. Later on, he added selling T-shirts on the beach to his work history, further honing his now-impressive marketing acumen.
In the 1990s, after spending several years trying anything from sales to insurance to credit card marketing, Burnett ultimately broke into television when he created Eco-Challenge, an international outdoor adventure series. He produced nine editions of the show, picking up a 2000 Sports Emmy for his efforts.
It was during the summer of 2000 that Burnett's life would change when he worked up a show idea adapted from a Swedish series called Expedition Robinson. Burnett pitched Survivor all over Hollywood and was turned down several times, before CBS finally rolled the dice on what would soon become a true game-changer series for the business of television. Survivor debuted that summer, and the fact that it quickly became a pop phenomenon made all the effort that much sweeter.
PRESSURE TO SURVIVE
To this day, he says getting the show on the air is his greatest achievement. "I am most proud of the risk it took to get Survivor on," he says. "It was a huge risk and [required] putting yourself out there to be knocked down massively."
Burnett also remembers that the pressure really didn't start to build until the show got the green light from CBS. "It was my first network gig," he says. "It was quite frightening to know you are responsible to Les Moonves."
Once the show's brilliant mix of bald strategy, bitter enmity and male nudity took off, so did Burnett's career. "Survivor opened the door for making legitimate, high-class, [alternative] network series," says Fox Alternative Entertainment President Mike Darnell. "Mark really started a trend."
A laundry list of awards came with the show's success, but Burnett didn't want to be a one-hit wonder. In 2004, he launched The Apprentice on NBC, and had a second major hit on his hands.
Today, Burnett has five shows on the air. He has the current Survivor and is already prepping the 16th edition. On Fox, he has Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, which is also succeeding on Thursdays, television's most lucrative night.
Also in his repertoire are the upcoming celebrity edition of The Apprentice on NBC, boxing reality show The Contender on ESPN and the syndicated Martha Stewart talk show.
But like every producer, Burnett has had more misses than hits. To this day, he considers the failure of this past summer's Pirate Master one of the bigger disappointments of his career. Burnett thought he could build on his acumen for Survivor-like shows, but in the end learned a valuable lesson
"The moral there is, just don't do something that seems derivative of your own hits," he says, though he's hardly the first to try such a move. Even the confident Burnett knows that not everything works out.
"I have done 12 television series and had only three hits," he says. "I want to have a 100% hit ratio; everyone does, but it's not real."
Even if not all Burnett shows have struck gold, they tend not to fail for lack of quality. And it is the word "quality" that Burnett wants etched on his producing tombstone.
"I've not done anything schlocky ever," he maintains boldly. "Nothing around here is half-assed."
But Mark Burnett is in no mood to rest on his laurels, or his current hits. He thinks there is room on network television for another drama-based reality show, another game show and another stage show in the vein of American Idol and Dancing With the Stars.
Burnett already has multiple new alternative shows in development, as someone with his track record is also uniquely positioned to take advantage if there is a work stoppage in Hollywood.
Among the projects he has already sold are three game shows: Amnesia and My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad to NBC and another called Jingles to CBS.
He also still wants to get into scripted programming in the next year or so, a genre in which he has tried and failed up to this point. Burnett is also enamored with the music business and the opportunity he sees from its current challenges.
"I'm still motivated by what is the next great idea," he says. "So, I'm looking for it, and just trying stuff."
His original franchises Survivor and The Apprentice may have fewer years ahead of them than behind, but Burnett does not feel the same way about his career.
"It's only been seven or eight years," he says. "In terms of the overall history of reality shows, I'm like an old man. But in terms of the decades of overall television, it is still really early for me and I'm having a great time."