Behind the Screen: Burnett’s New Studio Model

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Mark Burnett isn’t just the executive producer of “Survivor,” he is a survivor. And like the winners of his ever-tougher reality competitions, he has a way of spinning challenges into opportunities.

Consider the past year or so, in which his highly hyped boxing series “The Contender” on NBC turned out to be a 98-pound weakling in the ratings; numbers were down for “The Apprentice” on NBC; his Fox reality show “The Casino” crapped out; his efforts to break into scripted programming came to naught; the doors closed permanently on the second season of “The Restaurant” on NBC; and his summer series “Rock Star: INXS” never found a large audience, leading CBS to move one of the three weekly editions to sister network VH1.

For somebody else that could have been a knockout blow. But for the uniquely positioned Mr. Burnett, it was the basis to continue quietly but aggressively building a multifaceted studio with a unique economic model and an eye toward expanding into self-distribution in domestic syndication and even taking on some work for outside productions. All the while he has readied an ambitious multishow slate for next season.

This fall Mr. Burnett will usher in the 11th season of the granddaddy of reality shows, “Survivor,” the fourth season of “The Apprentice” and the first edition of “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.” He also is launching the syndicated “Martha,” which like his new edition of “Apprentice” banks on viewers’ willingness to welcome back Martha Stewart after her term in prison.

Mr. Burnett conceded that some of his shows have been “less successful in terms of ratings.” But he is quickly proving that “there’s a lot more to it than the ratings.”

A savvy businessman and accomplished dealmaker, Mr. Burnett is undaunted by what some consider disappointment. Take “The Contender,” which his Mark Burnett Productions produced with DreamWorks. After one season on NBC it appeared headed to Palookaville. Instead, ESPN announced last week that it will pick up a second season of the boxing competition beginning in April 2006.

The way Mr. Burnett put it: “Contender” has now “found its true home.”

Mark Burnett Productions, founded in 2003, already employs some 1,500 people, depending on what shows are going on. It handles its own production, post-production, graphic title design, video bumpers and merchandising and some of its own distribution.

In fact, MBP could fill what some consider the void in the entertainment landscape created when Carsey-Werner, the last of the traditional independent TV producer/distributors, announced this summer that it is reorganizing and will no longer develop new shows.

Meanwhile, Mr. Burnett is developing a whole crop of new shows for the future that continue to expand his repertoire beyond the adventure show roots he established with “Survivor,” his first big show; “Eco-Challenge”; and his first foray into TV, “Raid Gauloises.” Mr. Burnett said he is “sitting on two or three other really great shows for daytime,” at least one of which he anticipates taking out to the syndication market for next season.

For the first time the London-born, Los Angeles-based mogul intends to syndicate the shows through his own company, he told TelevisionWeek. Among other things, he also is considering bringing back a new edition of “Eco-Challenge,” which last aired on USA Network in 2003. He is in talks with several writers to dabble further in some scripted fare, and he has partnered with Broadway theater gurus Barry and Fran Weisler and his “Apprentice” cohort Donald Trump on a stage version of “The Apprentice.”

Mr. Burnett, who has been a trailblazer in integrating advertisers with his shows, now has his own staff to handle product integration and product placement deals, headed by his longtime consigliere Conrad Riggs. Earlier this year MBP settled a legal dispute with Madison Road Entertainment over a product integration collaboration. The companies agreed to work together on some product integration for the fifth season of “Apprentice,” but beyond that Mr. Burnett expects MBP to keep that revenue-generating activity in-house.

“It’s highly unlikely we’ll do any more of that outside of the Madison Road thing,” he said, “because there’s such a big staff in-house doing it. … It’s more likely others will be coming to us [to do] their product placement.”

That is the other big change. Having hired staff and built an infrastructure, he sees the next step as taking on work related to non-MBP productions. He hasn’t done so yet.

“Right now anything is possible,” he said, but “We’re so busy with our own content.”

He added that post-production services likely would be the first area he’d get into for non-MBP productions, since his crew has the means and expertise to do it. Mr. Burnett said he had some 70 Avid editing machines working at once last Thursday, though he does not own the equipment. MBP has long-standing alliances with companies that provide the editing equipment.

“It’s not only the talented editors and producers but also the machines,” Mr. Burnett said. The company keeps up with the ever-changing technology available and has systems that can meticulously catalog thousands of hours of programming.

New Arenas

As part of the “Contender” deal, ESPN will also become an equity partner in the endeavor. In addition, three special bouts featuring fighters from the first season will air on ESPN or ESPN2 leading up the launch of the second season in April, said Will Staeger, executive producer of ESPN Original Entertainment. The first fight is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 15 and the second for Feb. 12, both on ESPN. A third is slated to air on ESPN2.

The deal structure is different with ESPN from what it was with NBC, and that’s how Mr. Burnett wanted it. “[ESPN has] massive incentive to grow and do boxing,” he said. The deal “took a while to do because it’s a very complicated agreement,” he said. ESPN has options to renew the series for two subsequent seasons. MBP will handle international distribution as well as sponsorships and product integration.

Mr. Burnett’s lesser successes “don’t concern us at all,” Mr. Staeger said. “Not every movie Steven Spielberg directed was the No. 1 movie that year. Not every movie George Lucas did or Francis Ford Coppola did was a smash hit. In the TV world, particularly in the unscripted realm, [Mr. Burnett] has come up with some of-if not the-greatest hits of all time. … I don’t think anyone can bat a thousand. For us he is a Hall of Famer. We are very happy to have a franchise player like him working for us.”

Mr. Burnett makes the case that ESPN will actually be better for the show. He said research showed ESPN viewers tend to be the sort of transaction-oriented consumers that might be likely to invest in “Contender”-related products, so even having fewer viewers than on NBC could still mean bigger profits ultimately from the merchandising.

In fact, television’s power to market to a target audience through its content is of particular interest to Mr. Burnett, a constant student of the business. “One thing I think for the future which is quite important is if you look, for example, at ‘Survivor,’ which has a big audience, some 20 million viewers each week. Think of how small a percentage that is of people who buy products in America-probably not even 20 percent of the purchasing public,” he said. “But 100 percent of the purchasing public knows what ‘Survivor’ is. … Therefore, you can have such an awareness and marketing ability with only 10 [percent] or 20 percent of people having seen who you are.”

It’s a “scaling issue,” he said, that can also be adapted for the Internet: “Everything is changing all the time.”

Like Mr. Burnett’s approach to the evolution of “Contender,” his response to the moving of the Monday edition of “Rock Star” is counterintuitive.

CBS took a considerable gamble by initially scheduling “Rock Star,” billed as the search for the new lead singer of r
ock band INXS, three times per week. “I’m disappointed the audience isn’t loving it more,” Leslie Moonves, Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer and CBS chairman and CEO, said of “Rock Star” and its modest ratings last month at an industry event before the scheduling move. “It’s a wonderful show.”

The shift kept the Tuesday and Wednesday editions in place.

“It’s a really, really good move for us,” Mr. Burnett said. “We were asking too much of the audience with three times a week. It was adversely affecting our partner CBS, which saw a dip in the night.”

Whether “Rock Star” ultimately works or not, Mr. Burnett will be left with a music business. As part of the show, he secured the rights to distribute the music recorded by the contestants. (Likewise, he makes long-term deals to promote the boxers on “Contender.”) Within days of the first contestant’s elimination, Mr. Burnett started setting up meetings in conjunction with the show’s music label partner, Sony BMG’s Epic Records, to launch the contestant’s solo career, he said.

“It’s part of the agreement; we’ve given [the contestant] mass exposure, and we have a future path in making money together,” he said. “We’re locked together in business.”

Mr. Burnett pointed out that the number of downloads of “Rock Star” fare on MSN has grown and recently accounted for the majority of the top 10 downloads.

Eye on the Prize

Mr. Burnett has not retained all rights to all of his shows at this point. Rather, “every show is different,” he said. “It depends on the deal.” MBP, for example, is “equal partners with CBS” on “Survivor,” which King World and CBS distribute, while MBP handles international distribution of “The Apprentice,” Mr. Burnett said. There are some 20 versions in the world of “The Apprentice,” and about 100 countries have the actual American product, he said. But going forward, MBP will seek to own the ultimate rights to its shows as it moves to handle much of its own distribution.

“Clearly, with the fact that we’ve been so successful in foreign distribution, it makes perfect sense when appropriate to hold on to those rights,” Mr. Burnett said. “We’ve done very well. We’ve sold international on ‘Casino’-that was very successful. We’ve sold international on ‘Rock Star,’ ‘Contender’ and ‘Apprentice.’ So we have quite a big international distribution operation.”

The domestic syndication business, which is controlled by a handful of buyers and sellers, is riddled with obvious pitfalls and has not seen a breakout hit since “Dr. Phil” debuted in September 2002. Mr. Burnett, however, is confident he can break into domestic syndication distribution, provided the content is worthy.

“It all depends [on] if the people want the show enough, then you have the leverage to self-distribute,” he said. “Personally, I think the syndication business has a potentially huge upside; my job is to look for vacuums in the marketplace.”

All of this considered, he insisted that he doesn’t run his business “around license fees and financial models-that’s dumb. I run my business around what I think is good content and high production values. The deals I make are just to get treated fairly by the networks. That’s all.”

“The drive here is a commitment to excellence, a commitment to not putting crap on the air,” he said.

Mr. Burnett now faces the challenge of keeping his focus.

“There comes a point where you ask, what business are you in?” he said. “Are we a service company or are we a content company? Clearly, we’re totally a content company, which doesn’t mean to say we won’t in the future consider providing post services to other companies.”

Contentwise, he strategically has branched out, move by move, adding to his areas of expertise. “Martha,” of course, meant exposure to the daytime marketplace. “Rock Star,” on the other hand, is a “whole other different world, which is editing on the fly and live events,” Mr. Burnett said.

He has dabbled in the scripted game, having done pilots for three network shows in 2003. He hired Creative Artists Agency to help him make that transition. The pilots did not get off the ground, and he fired CAA this spring after two years as a client. He now plans to represent himself. “As a producer, I didn’t see the need in one agency; I like to work with all the different agencies,” he said.

Mr. Burnett said that in the second half of this year, maybe early next year, he will jump back into the scripted fray. He said he “learned a ton” from the pilots and that the scripted world is a “very different, tough business. It’s very unlike anything I do, because it’s very committee-driven.”

He’s in the process of reading scripts and is in talks with writers about partnerships, he said.

“We have a big production company. We’re trusted with responsibility, with money and our logistics and certainly our creative brains in nonfiction,” he said. “In terms of fiction, it really behooves me to work with great writers.”

As much as he’s accomplished-and though he’s a published author-Mr. Burnett won’t write scripts himself. “The thing you know about yourself is, could you really deliver on time,” he said. “If I had nothing else going on-no shows, I could sit at home and just write-I might do an OK job.”

Mr. Burnett has plenty to do. During “Rock Star’s” first week on the air last month, he would stay seated only moments for an in-person interview. The cast had just done a run-through for the third episode, and Mr. Burnett’s three children were calling to him as they played the instruments on the “Rock Star” stage. Mr. Burnett’s girlfriend, actress Roma Downey, looked on; “Rock Star” host Brooke Burke stopped to introduce her toddler niece; and Mr. Moonves was calling on Mr. Burnett’s cellphone to request a screening of the morning’s tape.

As harried as the morning may have appeared, however, Mr. Burnett, a former member of the British Army Parachute Regiment and now a U.S. citizen, said on the phone the next day, “That wasn’t bad-just so you know.”

A few weeks before things were a bit tougher: When two “Apprentices” were shooting, he was beginning to shoot “Rock Star,” prepping “Martha” and thinking about the tribal council build for this fall’s “Survivor: Guatemala,” he said.

“Right now is actually quite easy concentrating just on ‘Rock Star,'” he said. “I enjoy multitasking. I enjoy the people I work with and have a very trusted sea of people who don’t need to be micromanaged.”

Some of his key staff have been with him since “Eco-Challenge” and the first “Survivor.”

He said he has a policy of keeping what he calls a “very flat management,” which appears to be his way of saying he always has an open mind to what others have to say. “It’s not a dictatorship. My key staff, not just top people, can say, ‘That’s wrong, Mark. It should be this way,'” he explained.

“[U.S. oil industrialist] Paul Getty said something very important. He said, ‘Take away my oil wells and factories. Simply leave me my 50 best people and I’ll have it all back double in five years.’ It’s not the business. It’s not the marketplace. It’s the people,” Mr. Burnett said. “The way I have achieved this is retaining the same staff.”

Mr. Burnett’s track record, well above average in TV, also is still working for him. Disappointments aside, he apparently continues to have the support of at least one of the most powerful executives in town.

“Mark’s a great, great producer. He’s a terrific talent, so we’re glad we’re in business with him,” Mr. Moonves said last month. “‘Survivor’ had a lot to do with changing the whole profile of this network, so we’re indebted to him.”