British uber-producer Mark Burnett already changed our culture when he brought reality television to America. Now, he’s seen as the man who could potentially upend an election.
As the creator of “The Apprentice,” he fueled Donald Trump’s rise to TV fame, when the GOP presidential nominee starred on the show for more than a decade. But after the Washington Post published a 2005 hot mic video on Friday of Trump crudely boasting about how he could grope women because he was a star, people started wondering: Can you imagine the footage that must be on old “Apprentice” tapes?
The Associated Press already published a story about Trump degrading women on “The Apprentice” behind the scenes. Burnett stayed mum, which only led to a report that he was a Trump supporter threatening to sue anyone who leaked damaging material. On Monday night, Burnett finally released a joint statement with MGM Television, where he serves as president and which owns the rights to “The Apprentice.” It read, in part:
“Despite reports to the contrary, Mark Burnett does not have the ability nor the right to release footage or other material from ‘The Apprentice.’ Various contractual and legal requirements also restrict MGM’s ability to release such material. The recent claims that Mark Burnett has threatened anyone with litigation if they were to leak such material are completely and unequivocally false.”
This carefully-worded statement (which also made sure to mention Burnett “has consistently supported Democratic campaigns”) didn’t do much to silence the skeptics. But legal complications aside, Burnett’s reluctance to hunt for footage that could potentially blow up the election isn’t surprising. Burnett is a hugely influential figure in Hollywood, from reality TV to the Christian entertainment market, and has a massive, award-winning empire to protect — why would he want to make any high-profile enemies?
Burnett, after all, is credited with the rise of reality television. Raised outside London, Burnett served in the British Army before arriving in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and working as a nanny and driver until he caught the Hollywood bug. In the book “Desperate Networks,” journalist Bill Carter describes a turning point when Burnett was out jogging and he caught the attention of swooning women who thought he was an actor: “It gave him a glimpse of what fame meant in this town,” Carter wrote.
In 1995, with zero TV background, Burnett sold MTV on the idea of “Eco-Challenge,” a visually impressive TV competition show that features people racing across the desert. But it was a meeting with CBS that would change his life five years later: The network agreed to buy his crazy-sounding show called “Survivor,” where contestants are stranded on an island and vote each other off. The show became a phenomenon and led to the explosion of this new thing called “reality TV” in the United States.
From there, Burnett went on to produce dozens more shows around the world, including Trump’s “The Apprentice,” now called “The New Celebrity Apprentice” (in its 16th season) and scheduled for a January debut with host Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some of Burnett’s biggest hits include ABC’s long-running “Shark Tank” and NBC’s smash “The Voice,” currently the only surviving reality singing competition.
Burnett credits “The Voice’s” good vibes for its success — it doesn’t mock bad singers. “You don’t need to be mean to create drama,” Burnett told the Washington Post in an interview last year. “There’s a lot of negative stuff out there. And it’s great to not be contributing to that.”
Burnett and his wife, “Touched by Angel” star Roma Downey, are also a force in the religious entertainment world; they were recently named in the Newsmax list of “Top 100 Christian Leaders in America” and were the speakers at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. With their production company, the couple created the 2013 History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” which stunned many in Hollywood when 13 million viewers tuned into watch, making it among the top cable shows of the year. NBC picked it up for a sequel, “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” which earned an average of 6.5 million viewers a week in 2015.
Burnett and Downey also branched out into the feature film world in 2014 with “Son of God,” an adaptation of “The Bible” miniseries focused on the story of Jesus; it made $67 million at the box office. The couple had less luck in August with a remake of the 1959 classic “Ben Hur.” Despite heavily marketing to Christian viewers, according to Variety, the film only made $26 million of its $100 million budget, marking one of the worst movie flops of the summer.
Regardless, Burnett’s TV productions are still a machine. In late December, Burnett signed on as the president of the MGM Television and Digital Group (he first joined with the movie studio for “Ben Hur”), and the company bought out Burnett and Downey’s production company, which is how it now owns “The Apprentice” footage. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that as part of the deal, Burnett will help start a digital channel “aimed at churchgoing Americans.”
As of now, though, it’s possible most people still know him as the guy who put Trump on millions of TV screens. At the Emmy Awards (where Burnett won for “The Voice” for best reality competition show), host Jimmy Kimmel skewered him for this very point.
“Many have asked who is to blame for Donald Trump, the Donald Trump phenomenon? And I’ll tell you who, because he’s sitting right there,” Kimmel said, as Burnett laughed in the crowd. “Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows any more, because we’re living in one. Thank you, Mark. Thank you for coming all the way from England to tear us all apart with your intricate plot.”