“If you are an immigrant, you grew up actually seeing through the power of television what can be in America.”
Mark Burnett, president of MGM Television and executive producer best known for The Voice (NBC), Survivor (CBS), Shark Tank (ABC), and the cable miniseries The Bible and A.D. The Bible Continues; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History on November 16, 2017.
“I was a kid in overcast, cloudy, cold East London, looking at sunny Southern California on television, and now I live there”
I grew up in working-class England, east of London, where my parents worked at Ford Motor Company. In the town I lived in, every house was identical and 90 percent of people living in those houses worked at the Ford factory. The houses were manufactured as public housing and owned by the city government. My mother had made it very clear from my earliest memories that I would not work in the factory and I would need to get an education and do something different.
My parents moved there from Glasgow, Scotland — partially because my mother was Presbyterian and my father was Catholic, and it was very difficult to be married across the divide of Christianity in Glasgow and extremely difficult for Catholics to get work. Like in America at the time, many advertisements would say “Catholics need not apply.”
Television in the ’60s was growing in content, and we were transported away from life around the factory into America by things like Happy Days and CHiPs, Dynasty; I could go on and on and on with American TV shows. Now I live in California, and I can still say to this day, I drive on the Los Angeles freeways thinking of Erik Estrada, riding his motorcycle as Ponch in CHiPs. When I first watched that show, I was amazed that roads could be that wide. The biggest roads I had ever seen in Britain had only two lanes on either side, and here was a 12-lane highway where it is always sunny, where they are always riding their motorcycles in their short sleeves, and palm trees.
Think of that: I was a kid in overcast, cloudy, cold East London, looking at sunny Southern California on television, and now I live there. I drive past that pier in The Rockford Files every day. If you are an immigrant, you grew up actually seeing through the power of television what can be in America. And then to actually live in that world is amazing.
“Adventure, by its very nature, has no controlled outcome”
I probably joined the Parachute Regiment, which is an elite military unit, as a result of seeing things like Rambo. I had seen every one of those. I liked adventure. American media content and war movies made certain things desirous to a young man who was looking for an escape from what could be a set life of going to work in the same factory that your parents did.
Being in the Parachute Regiment absolutely shaped who I am today. This tight unit had to work toward one purpose. And I think of the Latin phrase in omnia paratus, which means “ready for anything,” because you are parachuting into a war situation without enough food, without enough ammunition, and with a plan, but the plan will change as you hit the ground because you are landing from the air into another piece of hostile territory. So you need to be adaptive. The way that I think today follows those principles of working as a unit, to lead in a clear, concise, military-like fashion, which leads to walking in the same direction for the same purpose. I think I’ve carried it to my productions.
Adventure, by its very nature, has no controlled outcome. It’s a risk analysis of what may happen and how you can mitigate the outcome through training, experience, planning, and human fortitude. And things will go wrong, and suffering creates perseverance. Perseverance creates character. And only when you have character can you have hope.
“These Americans are actually going to judge me on my results”
I moved [to America] on October 18, 1982. I got a job on North Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, as a servant. And I realized what an American, wealthier lifestyle could feel like. Then, around 30 years later, I become the president of MGM. I’m given an office on North Beverly Drive, and I look out the window to the street, and I can actually see the house where I was a servant from my office. Now is that the American dream or what?
This is the greatest country in the world. Americans like results. With my working-class-poor British accent, many doors would have been closed. When it comes to America, I thought, I have an opportunity here. These Americans are actually going to judge me on my results. Anybody in America can get up to bat and the question is, Can you hit the ball or not?
On the Survivor story
My first Emmy nomination was for Eco-Challenge, an adventure show of teams against teams, racing across mountains and jungles and rivers and deserts. I was asked to produce Survive, a game-show-style competition out of Sweden where people would be marooned on an island. I altered it to become Survivor and gave it much bigger scale and cinematic qualities. I pitched every network and only got one yes, which was ABC. But soon after, they canceled my contract for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which they thought would do better. Now I have nothing. Everyone has already said no.
I got a chance to go back in a second time to CBS, but this time to Leslie Moonves himself. That was my one shot. Luckily he had seen Eco-Challenge, he understood my sense of cinematic visuals, and he made a deal with me. The day that he finally said yes, I went outside of CBS and got in my vehicle, and I sat there for over an hour. Terrified. I had wanted this “yes” for so long, now I’ve gotten it, but no one had ever asked me, “Where is the island?” I didn’t have an island for it. “How are you going to make it?” I didn’t know how I was going to make it. Is the money they have given me to make it enough? I don’t know. I literally sat there and thought, Should I go back in and tell him I’m just kidding?
I remembered a National Geographic documentary where there were snakes on an island, eagles taking them, and giant monster lizards prowling them on an island named Borneo. I reached out to a woman called Irene [Benggon] Charuruks, who was the marketing head of the Malaysian government. She said, “This is the call I’ve been waiting for. We are trying to brand Malaysia as an adventure destination, but we can’t afford a marketing budget.” And we never looked back. Survivor got made on an island called Pulau Tiga in Sabah, which was British North Borneo. This island had zero resources. So we had to build everything there for the crew, and I even brought edit machines with me. In the jungle. Which broke every five seconds.
We had 20 minutes of the episode made, and I thought it was amazing. We had a visiting group of journalists, many of whom showed up in outfits like beekeepers because they were so nervous of the insects. I took that 20 minutes and, without any permission from CBS, I gathered the journalists and showed them the opening of Survivor. CBS heard that I had done that and screamed at me on the one telephone line that we had until the journalists gave their feedback. “This is the most amazing thing we have ever seen. We were expecting The Real World from MTV. This is like a movie. This is going to be the biggest thing ever.” Well you couldn’t have bought that marketing. On that first season of Survivor, the finale had 52 million people watching it and an estimated 125 million people watched at least part of season one. Survivor has been in the top ratings spot on Wednesday evenings for much of the past 18 years. It changed television.
You have to have well-thought-out concepts and execution to get on television and to stay on television. Survivor has staying power. It’s highly symbolic. You wouldn’t think of this as a reality show but more of a psychological drama. The type of shooting, the coloring, the words used, the pacing, the vacuum of silence, it all creates an emotional experience, and clearly it works. I was casting yesterday for Survivor. There were young people in front of me saying, “I started watching this when I was seven, eight years of age.” Pretty soon people will be cast on this show that started before they were born.
On astounding the conventional wisdom, one show at a time
I create my projects from a combination of seeking adventure, being a wealthy American, ego, and instinct of what I think would be an interesting piece of art. Art meets commerce.
Shark Tank is now in its ninth season, and we just made its 200th episode. And many people said to me in the beginning, “You know, Mark, you’re pretty smart. You make a lot of good shows. But I don’t think people are going to watch a show about business, percentages and money, and buying into a company.” I said, “If told in an entertaining way, this show will have massive value for young Americans.” Americans are the most giving in the world, the American government is the largest giver in the world, all created by people starting small businesses and paying taxes. Shark Tank has made millions of young Americans interested in business by doing it in a fun way.
When I was doing The Voice, they said, “Well what’s different about it?” I said, “It’s going to be kind and uplifting.” And people said to me, “Well how is that going to work?” The whole point of American Idol is having really bad singers in the auditions and having fun at their expense. People’s hurt feelings are replaced by the drama caused by superstar coaches debating and picking on each other. They are already superstars, so it doesn’t feel as negative. The Voice is the most important music show in America. And it’s uplifting.
And then I decided to make The Bible. And people thought I had lost my mind. I made it with my wife, Roma Downey. We actually put the finances together ourselves, and The Bible went up against The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones — and The Bible had more viewers than both of the others, combined. I did it with Abbe Raven at History, and it literally astounded the conventional wisdom.
On the democratization of television
Survivor came on prior to any sense of serious social media. It was largely discussed on Thursday mornings around coffee or water coolers in offices and in factories all over America, because there was no other way to discuss it. “Oh did you see Survivor last night?” Or, “Don’t tell me, don’t tell me; I recorded it on my VCR.”
For the first time, regular people — a truck driver, a postal worker, a teacher, an athlete, a student — had an opportunity to be on national television. Survivor spawned an enormous wave of reality shows. But then comes along YouTube and social media, and, suddenly, it is almost like all 300 million people in America could have their own channel.
Entertainment is also democratic in that it is more of a meritocracy. The merit being that whatever the people are watching the most of stays in the game, matrixed with cost basis. It is this ebb and flow between innovative ideas, cost basis, penetration into the marketplace to reach people, and how long they will stay with it.
“If I can do a good job, my work will live on”
Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank, The Bible. It’s all over the place in terms of decisions, and the moral of the story is, as a television producer, trust your instincts and know your audience. Work tirelessly to try to deliver for the audience.
I was just so fortunate that all four shows will forever be in the public consciousness. And it comes back to what I said about having to make a choice. Was I going to go into banking or insurance? What was I going to do? I went into entertainment, television specifically, because I knew that it would make the same amount of work and the same amount of money — but if I can do a good job, my work will live on.