Mark Burnett tells a story about an imaginary party attended by American and British guests. Someone mentions that there’s a 17-foot purple giraffe wandering in the backyard. The Americans jump to take a look, while the Brits remain seated, knowing there’s no way such a fantasy creature could be cruising outside their window. After the Americans take a peek and see nothing, they laugh at themselves, realizing how preposterous a purple giraffe sighting would be.
“The reason why the Brits miss a lot of things is that they are not willing to look for the purple giraffe, because they don’t want to seem foolish,” says Burnett, who is actually quite proud of his English ancestry. “But one day there will be one, and I never want to be the person who sits on his ass and doesn’t go look for that purple giraffe.”
Burnett tells me this yarn to explain why he immigrated to the United States. But the story also says a lot about him, how he’s lived his life and what drives him professionally.
A paratrooper-turned-Beverly Hills nanny-turned entrepreneur who is now one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers, Burnett has never been one to do the expected. His ability to see beyond business-as-usual approaches has enabled him to break new ground in entertainment. With credits including Survivor, The Apprentice and Shark Tank, among many others, Burnett has referred to his shows as “unscripted dramas,” rather than reality shows, offering a new brand of storytelling that immediately captivated audiences. He also pioneered the use of product placement to finance TV shows and was an early adopter of new technologies who embraced social media as a promotional tool.
During a brief window of whirlwind travel last April, Burnett made time for an interview with me at his office next to the sound stage for his newest show, The Voice, on NBC. The office, in a makeshift building in the parking lot, is utilitarian—basic desks and chairs, no art or photos on the walls, paper nameplates. Clearly, the décor is not the priority.
Ordinarily we would meet at Burnett’s main office in Santa Monica, but he’s in transit; after watching The Voice’s first live-results show on this night, he’s booked on the red-eye to return to Morocco where and he and wife Roma Downey have been working on their epic 10-hour series, The Bible, set to air in 2013 on the History Channel. During five months of filming, Burnett has commuted to Los Angeles to work on The Voice, Celebrity Apprentice, Shark Tank, Survivor and Stars Earn Stripes, a new reality competition series that debuts in August on NBC.
In addition to his six primetime shows in 2012-2013, which is a record for unscripted series, Burnett has a joint TV production venture with Hearst called One Three Media and ownership in several digital companies, including YouToo.com, VIMBY and Actv8.
Despite his hectic schedule, Burnett settles down for our interview as if he’s got all the time in the world. Over the years through our interviews as well as encounters at parties and industry events, I’ve noticed his knack for making people feel as if they’re the most important ones in the universe. During our conversation, he never loses eye contact, investing fully in the moment without any obvious urge to check his cellphone. He breaks just once—after apologizing profusely to me—to take a call from Downey. His voice warms as they speak.
Burnett may be the captain of a multimillion-dollar company with interests ranging from computer applications to TV productions as well as partnerships with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, but he remains mindful of how he got here.
Dressed not much differently than his crew members, in a black T-shirt, jeans and comfortable shoes, Burnett remembers visiting this same historic Warner Bros. lot as a tourist shortly after coming to the States. “What might it be like to work here?” he had wondered.
“I hoped one day to get permission just to go on the lot, not as a tourist, but to actually watch how productions were done,” he says in an accent still resonant of his working-class roots in a factory town east of London. “I never, ever forget that. Every day I think, ‘Wow! I’m in the entertainment business.’ ”
A Falklands War veteran who served in the British army’s Parachute Regiment, Burnett had little money when he came to the United States in 1982 and charmed his way into nanny jobs for three wealthy families. Not that he had planned to go into the nanny business.
“I had heard of military consulting in Central America and knew of a contact in Los Angeles. Military consulting was the only job I was trained for, but when I was leaving London my mom made me promise no jobs with guns. Luckily I had a friend working in L.A. as a chauffeur, and he helped me find the nanny job in Beverly Hills. By the way, when I called my mother to tell her about the new job, she hung up the phone saying, “If you are going to make up a story, you have to do better than that.”
While working as a nanny, Burnett took the opportunity to talk with his bosses to gain their business insights. “How can I have what you have?” he recalls asking his third employer, Burt Borman.
Borman explained that he had been lucky to start from nothing, with no expectations that anyone would ever bail him out. And to get anywhere in life, he said, Burnett needed to start small and build.
Burnett carefully socked away his earnings while impressing Borman, who eventually offered him a job at his insurance company. Burnett worked the insurance gig during the week and decided to spend $1,500 a month to rent 10 feet of fence on Venice Beach to hawk T-shirts he bought for $2 and sold for $18.
“I was scared that I was making a mistake spending that money, but what I discovered was that I had a skill I didn’t know I had: I could sell,” says Burnett, who earned most of his monthly fence rent in that first day at the beach.
Burnett ultimately would put his salesmanship to good use in peddling TV ideas. But in the meantime, he began building an entrepreneurial portfolio. With the money he earned from the lucrative T-shirt business, he made a real estate deal that netted $75,000 in just 30 days. Using that seed money, he started his own marketing business and other entrepreneurial pursuits, making his first million by 1990.
After building up his diverse company, Burnett could have easily settled into a comfortable lifestyle. But that isn’t part of his DNA.
He had read a story in the Los Angeles Times about Gerald Fusil’s Raid Gauloises, an adventure race in which international teams compete under extreme conditions. “The race had all these things—adventure, a chance to make money and a good idea for a TV show, so I decided to compete in it,” Burnett says. He then bought the rights to the format and began pitching the project for television. (“People call me the ‘method producer’ because I like to experience everything for myself,” he says.)
He knocked on doors, networked with people he had met in Los Angeles and got meetings with TV executives. He says his naivete actually inspired confidence; he believed the networks needed a good show just as much as he wanted to be the one to do it. Ultimately he sold the idea to the Discovery Channel as Eco-Challenge: The Expedition Race, which aired from 1995 to 2002.
But from the show’s beginning, there were challenges. Just days before the first race was scheduled, production remained in limbo because of a lawsuit seeking to prevent the race from happening on U.S. land. Burnett was deeply in debt after funding the production, and more delays could be fatal to the show. One of his producers, Mike Sears, went to his hotel room and was incredulous to find his boss sleeping.
“I told him, ‘I’ve tried my best and did everything in good faith. If it all goes wrong, I guess I’ll be bankrupt and I’ll go back to England,’ ” Burnett recalls. But the next day, a judge ruled in his favor, and the race went on. “What you have to remember is that once you’ve done your very best, there’s no point in worrying.”
Even after I hear all this, I wonder aloud to Burnett: How did he have the wherewithal to go from hawking T-shirts on a Southern California beach to producing a TV show? Tony Robbins seminars, Burnett answers simply.
What was great about the motivational guru’s seminars, Burnett says excitedly, was being among thousands of people who shared the goal of changing their lives for the better by believing there’s nothing they couldn’t accomplish as long as they put their minds to it. So using tools he gained from the seminars, Burnett jotted down his goals, which he ticks off in rapid succession:
“First, I wanted adventure. Big adventure, just like the Parachute Regiment days. But not with guns.
“Second, I wanted to make money. I’d been a housekeeper/nanny for very wealthy families in Beverly Hills and Malibu. I’d seen what it’s like, and I thought I’m just as street-smart, or more, than a lot of these people. And what I lacked in my formal academic education, I could make up for in enthusiasm and instinct. And if I’m going to have this kind of lifestyle, I want to make some good economic decisions, and that’s a very American thing.
“And third, I wanted to be in the entertainment business.”
He says God brought him the story about the French adventure race, which he decided would be his vehicle to get into the entertainment business.
But selling the show was actually the easy part, he says. Much harder was keeping the production going, having to dip into his own limited funds and struggling to motivate the crew in such difficult wilderness conditions.
The sacrifices paid off, however, when the adventure competition series opened the door to selling CBS executive Les Moonves an idea that became Survivor.
“Mark is one of the most charming guys you’ll ever meet and a magnificent salesman,” Moonves says. “And he put out an idea that wasn’t that common at the time—product placement—and he said he could do [the series] cheaply. He delivered.”
Burnett’s ideas for product placement involved holding challenges throughout the course of the show in which contestants competed for rewards including prizes from advertisers—thus providing a skip-proof spot where advertisers could hype products from Ford trucks to Budweiser.
The combination of an enthralling series that could incorporate such a new business model was appealing to the network. When it became a hit, it also helped CBS secure a younger demographic and tear down the NBC Thursday juggernaut that included the long-running series Friends.
Burnett also pioneered the use of social media to promote the show. “I learned a lot about the power of social media from the beginning of Survivor and that having a website dedicated to the discussion of the show made it more vibrant,” he says. “It meant that instead of talking about the show the next day at work, you were talking immediately afterward, making it more important to tune in live.”
When describing how Moonves took a chance on him with Survivor, Burnett’s tone is reverential. “At the time, I didn’t care if I made a penny on Survivor. I felt if I made it good enough, it would be the key to open the door to network television,” he says. “Of course, the story is better than that. It was the most watched summer series since Sonny and Cher in 1972, and it gave me great opportunity.”
But the personal cost was high. A sadness comes over Burnett when he recounts being in an exotic location and speaking by phone with his son James, then 9 years old, who said, “Daddy, I forgot what you look like.”
For Burnett, the conversation was a wake-up call: “I remember being in the Amazon [working on Survivor] and thinking there has got to be a way of making a living in the city so I could be close to my kids,” he says. And that’s how The Apprentice was born, as well as Contender and INXS Rock Star.
While his relationships with sons James and Cameron survived, Burnett’s 12-year marriage ended in 2003.
He began seeing Downey a year after his divorce, and the two married in 2007.
Downey has called their blended family “a good team,” and the affection they show each other demonstrates a strong bond. She and Burnett work tirelessly at making their family life and careers succeed. On the night of our interview, he would travel with their three teenage kids to Morocco where Downey remained on set.
“I still love the adventure,” Burnett tells me with a roguish smile, “and if I’m honest,
there’s a bit of selfishness in a person like me. If I had been born 200 years ago, I would have been an explorer.”
Burnett credits his wife of five years with teaching him to be a better man. He describes Downey, the Emmy-winning star of the former Touched by an Angel series, as “an angel on earth,” and both are deeply committed to their Christian faith and supporting charitable causes. Burnett smiles broadly as he repeats a favorite Downey saying: “Whenever possible, do things with kindness. And it is always possible.”
Kindness seems to be the last item on most Hollywood moguls’ agendas. But Burnett seems intent on giving back. He’s shared tips on success in nonfiction books including Jump In! Even If You Don’t Know How to Swim and Dare to Succeed: How to Survive and Thrive in the Game of Life. And he’s personally helped others to grow professionally.
“Mark believes in giving people opportunities even when their résumés don’t reflect the required experience. If you are good to him, he is better to you,” says Survivor host Jeff Probst. “I am forever loyal to Mark.”
When Burnett promoted Probst to executive producer, it was the first time CBS had a host who was also running the show. Probst credits his boss with teaching him about structuring a show and entertaining an audience. And it was Burnett’s endorsement that convinced CBS to give Probst the opportunity.
Probst talks about how Burnett is very hands-on until he’s confident enough to walk away. He does, however take note of everything. During our interview, I casually mention noticing that The Voice judge Cee Lo Green didn’t bring his white Persian cat, Purrfect, on stage for the live show I attended the night before. That prompts Burnett to whip out his cellphone and make a note of it.
While Burnett may question a decision as small as whether a cat gets stage time, he will listen to the reasons behind it. Probst says Burnett is the kind of leader who doesn’t feel threatened when challenged.
“You can argue with Mark and never feel he’ll get upset with you,” Probst says. “He welcomes the passion. Make no mistake: He is still the boss and if he feels strongly about something, he’ll weigh in. But I’m impressed with how much freedom he gives us on Survivor. By showing he believes in you, he inspires you to deliver.”
In the first season of Survivor, Probst recalls how Burnett gave the crew a morale boost. The show had been shooting in brutal conditions with days of storms in isolated Borneo. The small crew had been schlepping gear through mud day after grueling day. Burnett decided it was time for them to see what they were working toward.
Of course, no one knew then what Burnett had in mind for the seminal Survivor. He gathered the 85 folks together and showed them about 15 minutes of the premiere episode.
“He gave one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, where he crowned us ‘the world’s greatest adventure crew,’ ” Probst says. “By sharing with us an early cut, he was saying, ‘Look at what you created’ and in that moment, he invested everybody and took the crew to another level of excitement and dedication.”
Without hesitation, Burnett explains how he learned to be a good leader. It all came from his supportive parents and the Parachute Regiment, which taught him to make do with whatever meager tools he had—ergo Survivor’s outwit-outplay-outlast mantra.
“The mission was always to dive in with not enough ammunition, not enough food or supplies, and make it work,” Burnett says. “It taught me how to figure out anything on my own.”
While he admits to having a few dark moments in his life—financial struggles, his late mother’s lung cancer battle and a failed first marriage—he is resilient. He doesn’t get bogged down in worries about why something didn’t work out; he just moves on to the next thing.
And he focuses on his wins: “You don’t have to measure success in money. In my case, I just need to know I’ve accomplished something unusual.”
As for his mentors, he points to his former employer Borman and best-selling author and speaker Tony Robbins. “I was a nanny for Burt, and he taught me kindness and generosity that a multimillionaire could have for a servant. I was his servant, and he encouraged me to do something great with my life,” Burnett says. “And Tony taught me how to stop working for a living and start designing my life.”
And if a country could be a mentor and a motivator, Burnett would include the United States of America. (It’s apropos that his series The Voice is produced on the stage where James Cagney filmed Yankee Doodle Dandy, because there’s no one more gung-ho on America than Burnett.)
“I have no skills really, and didn’t even know if I could sell myself for a job interview, let alone selling an idea, which I’m quite good at, as it turns out,” says Burnett, breaking out in a grin.
His voice softens as he reflects on his early years, growing up east of London near the Ford Motor Co. factory where his parents were employed.
“My parents, working-class factory workers, taught me to take risks. They were never critical of me, even of the zaniest ideas I had,” says Burnett, an only child. “I was never criticized for failing. That’s a really key thing to understand. Failing is fine, because, you know, you fail most of the time. If you only want to be right, you won’t jump in and do things. My parents gave me that.”
“Coming from a working-class background, I felt quite discriminated against [in England],” says Burnett, now a U.S. citizen. Leaning across the table toward me, hands clenched together, he says having the wrong kind of accent and lacking proper schooling and family background meant many doors were closed to him. “You end up settling for less because that was your station, your class structure.
“But Americans don’t care about that,” he says, grinning again. “Americans care about what you can do. This is a land of massive opportunities where other Americans actually want you to succeed. They will give you a chance. If you’re not very good, you’ll get kicked in the ass pretty quickly, but you’ll get the chance.”
Read more about what Mark Burnett calls his "most important" project to date, The Bible, on the History Channel.