Did you catch Steve Harvey’s “Funderdome” on ABC? How about “The World’s Best” on CBS, “The Contender” on Epix, or “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge” on Amazon Prime? Or the Christian-themed dramas “A.D. The Bible Continues” on NBC and “Messiah” on Netflix?
No? Well, you’re hardly alone. And the man behind the string of flops is Mark Burnett, the legendary TV producer who shaped Donald Trump’s image from “The Apprentice” through his 2016 inauguration. Like his greatest creation, Trump — who sought and then lost an idiotic television ratings war Thursday night with Joe Biden — Burnett seems to be struggling to keep his grip on the cultural moment.
Burnett’s story has been told often, and until 2016 he was eager to help tell it — how he reshaped American television with “Survivor” in 2000 and how, with the 2004 start of “The Apprentice,” he “resurrected Donald Trump as an icon of American success,” as The New Yorker put it. He’s been in Trump’s ear ever since: He held a planning meeting for the 2016 inauguration in his Ritz-Carlton apartment, the event’s planner, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, wrote. His associates produced the Republican National Convention this summer, Michael Grynbaum and Annie Karni reported for The New York Times. When Trump took the presidential helicopter from the hospital to the White House this month, panicked Twitter commentators compared an official video of his triumphal return to the work of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. But Burnett was the artiste whose influence really shined through on the video, though a spokeswoman said he did not consult on it.
“The level of production coming out of the White House is something we would have appreciated having,” Bill Pruitt, a producer on the “The Apprentice,” said of the video’s specific camera angles and its particular obsession with helicopters, a longtime favorite prop of Burnett’s dating back to “Survivor.” “As is customary for this, the reality TV version of a presidential campaign, it seems they’re not striving as much for ‘four more years’ as they are ‘Season 2.’ ”
But that style may have fallen out of fashion. Burnett, 60, the defining TV impresario, salesman and deal maker of the aughts, hasn’t put his stamp on a bona fide hit since the debut of “The Voice” in 2011. He shaped reality TV’s bombastic, gimmicky and sometimes cruel early years. But the genre has matured and shifted in the streaming age to what are sometimes sweeter and more positive productions, like Netflix’s “Floor Is Lava” and “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.”
And Burnett, until 2016 one of the most prominent figures in Hollywood, has gone dark. His Trumpian gift for telling his own story — about his triumphant reinvention of a once-great studio, MGM, and his plan to bring Jesus Christ to entertainment — has foundered on the reality of corporate infighting, creative struggles and a religious streaming network that never got off the ground.
“The impact that he was going to have on the film and Christian community has kind of gone bust,” said Peter Bart, who was a top executive at MGM before a long run as editor-in-chief of the trade newspaper Variety. “If that’s your main mission and your legacy is Trump and maybe the failure of the next MGM — that’s not a good chapter in his life.”
The current chapter of Burnett’s career began in earnest when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the once-great studio that had recently emerged from bankruptcy, bought out Burnett’s production company in 2015 for $120 million, consummating an earlier $400 million deal. That put him in charge of the studio’s television division. MGM got his stake in long-running shows like “The Voice” and “Shark Tank,” and the promise of more of his magic. MGM’s chief executive, Gary Barber, blessed the acquisition in high corporate gobbledygook: “We believe this synergistic transaction will be very accretive,” he said in a statement.
But with Burnett inside, Barber now had a charismatic rival for the affection of the chairman of the company’s board, Kevin Ulrich. One source of tension between Burnett and his new boss, two former executives said, was the enthusiasm of Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, for faith-based programing. The couple are outspoken Christians, and in 2013 they had produced “The Bible” for the History Channel, with Downey cast as the Virgin Mary. They then founded Lightworkers Media, which MGM now controls, and had hopes that MGM would turn it into a powerhouse.
But MGM never invested enough in Lightworkers to turn it into more than some scattered programming and a little-watched television channel, Light TV, showing family-friendly reruns. MGM’s biggest bet through Lightworkers, the $100 million 2016 film “Ben Hur,” lost money. Repeated promises of a high-powered streaming service never materialized.
Burnett’s relationship with Trump has also shadowed his run at MGM. He had long been part of a kind of media industry kitchen cabinet for the developer, along with CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, who had put “The Apprentice” on NBC, and talent agent Ari Emmanuel. He and Downey had typically supported Democrats (Downey wrote a check to Marianne Williamson’s 2014 California congressional campaign), and he said in 2016 that he wasn’t actually supporting his friend’s White House bid.
But although Burnett promised associates that his friendship with the president would be great for business, he was also intensely sensitive to criticism of his old friend. He objected in particular, two people present at the time said, when an MGM board member, Jason Hirschhorn, began sharply criticizing Trump in his newsletter, REDEF in 2016. Katie Martin Kelley, MGM’s spokeswoman, said Hirschhorn’s “public statements at the time caused friction for many people at MGM,” and Hirschhorn, who left the board in 2017, declined to comment.
Since the 2016 election, Burnett has gone to great lengths to keep a public distance from Trump, batting away suggestions that he helped with the Republican National Convention. “They are not in communication and he had no involvement with any of the president’s public activities around his hospitalization for COVID-19,” Kelley said in an email.
Trump is just one thread in the internal tension at MGM involving Burnett. He’s always been a difficult boss, and even before the pandemic, he was a man-about-town deal maker — not an office-bound manager. He’s had so little input in the successes of the company’s scripted division, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Fargo,” that the division’s leader, Steve Stark, was recently forced to clarify to The Hollywood Reporter that he still reports to Burnett. He played a role in the messy 2018 ouster of Barber, which has left the company operating without a chief executive. Now, MGM is subject to perennial acquisition rumors and dependent on factors it can’t control: It is hoping theaters will be packed for the release of a new James Bond film next year and that the culture will be ready for the return of “Live PD,” a Burnett acquisition that was canceled this summer amid the wave of revolt at police violence.
After Barber’s ouster, Burnett announced that he and Downey would raise $100 million to start a Lightworkers subscription service. But those plans, Kelley said, have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, though “conversations have and are expected to continue.” For now, Lightworkers is just producing content for MGM, and recently completed production on a feature film called “Resurrection.” It also scaled back its digital presence in July, taking much of its content off the internet, including articles by Charlotte Pence Bond, the daughter of Vice President Mike Pence. (One had the headline, “Are You Narcissistic? Let’s Find Out.”)
Burnett didn’t respond to interview requests directly or through an MGM spokeswoman. After years in the headlines, he is keeping his profile low, and his name didn’t even appear in a recent, gloomy Wall Street Journal assessment of MGM’s finances. Some of his old partners, like Les Moonves at CBS and Paul Telegdy at NBC, have been forced out of their positions, and a new generation of network executives doesn’t jump quite so quickly at his calls. But if he’s not quite the producing star he once was, he’s still closing deals. In 2018, Amazon Prime resurrected a show called “Eco-Challenge,” which Burnett started producing in the 1990s, though Amazon has dropped plans for a second season, MGM confirmed. When I asked MGM’s chief communications officer, Kelley, about the perception that Burnett had lost his creative touch, she responded with a litany of his long-running shows.
“In his capacity as an executive producer, he has produced more than 70 seasons of shows for ABC (‘Shark Tank,’ 12 seasons), CBS (‘Survivor’ 40 seasons), Fox (‘Beat Shazam,’ 4 seasons), NBC (‘The Voice,’ 19 seasons), and the most recently launched ‘World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge’ on Amazon Prime,” she said. “Combined, programs where he serves as an EP have generated 18 Emmy wins, and 150 nominations. Burnett’s TV division is consistently amongst the most profitable divisions of MGM.”
But the last great question for Burnett, of course, is Trump TV. Journalists often imagine that Trump will start a 24/7 news channel to the right of Fox News should he lose the presidency. But the best move of Trump’s career, tax returns obtained by The Times showed, was in reality, not news — his partnership with Burnett in “The Apprentice.” My colleague James Poniewozik wrote once that Trump’s problem is that “now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos.”
People who have worked with Burnett say they can’t help imagining that he’s working all the angles on the final, realest reality show of all, following a former president back into the real world.
Ben Smith c.2020 The New York Times Company