Realscreen West ’15: Mark Burnett on Putin, prayer, and perseverance

Mark Burnett, the exec producer behind such unscripted staples as Survivor and The Voice, discussed everything from forays into faith-based programming to his ambitions for a reality series following the Russian president in a keynote conversation at Realscreen West in Santa Monica.
June 2, 2015

Mark Burnett (pictured) has come a long way from setting out to produce Survivor 15 years ago without an island, to spending seven months filming a scripted Ben Hur remake for MGM and Paramount in Rome. His advice, though, to fellow producers at Realscreen West in Santa Monica today (June 1) was this: treat any network TV show like you’re making Ben Hur.

“Treat it like it’s a $150 million movie, because you’re in people’s homes,” Burnett told a standing room only collection of delegates assembled for the producer’s opening keynote. “With Survivor, we keep it fresh ever year, the game is great, and people watching Survivor who’ve only started watching in the last five seasons feel like they’ve discovered this brand new show.”

Though Burnett was meant to speak with his wife and producing partner Roma Downey, the latter was ill with laryngitis and moderator Mike Schneider, chief content officer from U.S. outlet TV Guide carried out the conversation with only Burnett, covering everything from the producer’s platform on faith-based programming to Burnett’s opinions on TLC’s troubled Duggar family, and his dream reality series – a Sarah Palin’s Alaska-style Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“President Putin, if you’re hearing this, I’m here from Realscreen [West] and I will fly to Russia tomorrow and it’ll be nothing political, it’s not like Bash Russia – it’s a show about your country,” said Burnett, pitching to Robert Sharenow, executive VP and GM of A&E and Lifetime, on the spot. And while the impromptu pitch garnered laughs, Burnett maintained he wasn’t joking, and would be keen to document everything from Siberia to St. Petersburg.

MGM acquired a 55% stake in Downey and Burnett’s companies, One Three Media and LightWorkers Media, in September, consolidating all companies into a JV called United Artists Media Group. The company’s roster of shows includes Survivor, The Voice , Shark Tank and The Bible.

Later, when asked about History docudrama The Bible, Burnett explained that he pitched several nets and cable channels and received many no’s except for Nancy Dubuc, who was an “immediate yes.”

“I’d taken 18 months to prepare my pitch,” he says. “I must have redone the pitch video – I’m not kidding – 30 times over 18 months… Let’s face it, there’s not much bigger risk than The Bible. You can easily p*** off millions of people by getting the Bible wrong.

“We believe in God deeply, we try to pray every day, we seek God, put God first,” he said, when discussing he and his wife’s work in faith-based and family-oriented programming. “And if you look at all of our shows, every show we make, we have more shows on air than any other company and they’re all family-friendly. I don’t make anything my kids wouldn’t want to watch. I don’t make lowest common denominator stuff.”

When asked about his plans for that space, Burnett said his company had further plans in development, and called the faith audience the “biggest underserved audience in America.” He warned, however, that even big companies can misstep by deviating from biblical stories in their adaptations, pointing to recent Hollywood offerings such as Noah and Exodus.

“We had 40 faith advisors on The Bible, all sent every rounds of the scripts and gotten notes back from all of them,” he said. “You imagine doing 40 sets of notes on a script each week. But you know what, on a biblical level, [The Bible] is pretty perfect. Because we listened and it was a real negotiation.”

Outside of religious programming, Schneider noted that Burnett was also bringing back the quiz format with shows such as Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? and the recent 500 Questions, to which the producer responded that these types of programs work well on a production level due to the amount of output possible in a day’s shooting.

“I feel that it’s a time for game shows to come back because game shows are great utility players,” said Burnett. “Every channel, every network, has shows they hope for that don’t do well and is replaced. And the easiest replacement programming are game shows.”

The producer also took time out of the hour-long discussion to comment on such controversies in reality as TLC’s present 19 Kids and Counting dilemma, saying that “David Zaslav did the right thing” by pulling the show. As far Discovery Channel’s Eaten Alive special? “That was silly,” Burnett scoffed, adding that he preferred the net’s other live events, such as Nik Wallenda’s Grand Canyon tightrope walk and the Felix Baumgartner space jump.

Burnett and Downey are currently at work on the forthcoming TLC series titled Answered Prayers, which features cases of near-death experiences that were avoided only through what survivors believe was divine intervention.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s comedy scripted, drama scripted, competition reality, docusoap – is it good? That’s the only thing that matters.”

(Photo of Mark Burnett by Rahoul Ghose.)

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