By Kelsey McKinney
Mark Burnett stands in the middle of a wilderness. Trees grow around him. He makes eye contact with the camera, and as it begins to pull back, Burnett begins to talk about his new show. As the executive producer of Survivor, Burnett was already famous for the drama he could create in a jungle or on a remote island, amid the rats and the crocodiles and the poisonous plants. But in this promotional video, Burnett tells the audience that he wants to set a drama in "the toughest jungle of them all" — he pauses for effect — "New York business." The camera pans up and up and suddenly it’s clear that he isn’t standing in a remote jungle in the middle of an ocean. He’s just standing in Central Park.
You can guess the show he was promoting: the first season of The Apprentice. And you are surely very aware of who the most prominent alumnus of that series is: President-elect Donald Trump. But it was Burnett, The Apprentice’s creator and executive producer, whom NBC wanted front and center in 2004. Few television producers have created as many massive hits as Burnett has; it is almost impossible to be an American in the 21st century without experiencing at least one of his shows. On his hit list are Survivor, The Apprentice, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, Shark Tank, The Voice, and at least one canceled reality show hidden deep on your DVR. His latest show, a new version of The Celebrity Apprentice starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, premieres Monday on NBC.
To understand Mark Burnett, then, is to understand the beginning of 21st-century pop culture — from the emergence of reality television to the election of Trump. But to parse Burnett is far harder than finding one of his shows to watch: He is a Hollywood veteran now, a practiced interview, and a man with a message. His representatives did not respond to several requests for interviews, so instead we dove deep into his history, his work, and the public statements he’s made over the past two decades.
In his 2001 book, Survivor II: The Field Guide, cowritten with Martin Dugard, Burnett explains the backstory and execution for the first season of Survivor. There are 13 different personalities that try to win Survivor, Burnett writes, and each type is needed to make the game interesting and competitive — though only some of them are characters he thinks could actually win the game. Over the course of his career, Burnett has played many of these roles in one way or another, and so we’ve used his own descriptions to help explain his own life, and to try to figure out who, exactly, he is.
There was no plumbing on the first season of Survivor, so the ocean around the island became the trash can, and the toilet, and the runoff. Burnett, knowing the gross, sewage-filled water would make for good television, wanted the shot. "Mark didn’t ask anyone to go in, he just said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, but I don’t want to ask you guys to get in that,’" host Jeff Probst told Sports Illustrated in 2003. "And before you knew it, pish, pish, pish, the cameramen were jumping into the water. I thought, Damn, these guys love Burnett."
Burnett was only a few years into his career when he pitched the idea for Survivor: a part reality, part game, part adventure show that stranded 16 normal people in treacherous terrain and pitted them against one another. With what would become characteristic chutzpah, Burnett refused to air the show as a pilot, insisting that it must be created as an entire series, which meant that he needed a lot of money to make it. Survivor’s first season, which aired in 2000, would require more than 60 staff members and an island 4,000 miles from Los Angeles that had to be staged. It was a huge ask from a young, modestly successful producer.
"You have no idea the number of people far more experienced than I who told me that I needed to choose whether I was making a drama or an adventure or a game show," Burnett recalled in 2001. Several major television networks rejected him and his British partner, Charlie Parsons; they shopped the show for four years. "I thought [the pitch] was the stupidest thing I ever heard," CBS chief Leslie Moonves told People in 2004. But as Burnett himself told The New Yorker in 2013, the word "no," in his mind, is just another new opportunity. When Burnett presented the show to CBS, he had the entire pitch planned out "down to the music." He brought along the charm and personal charisma that would become his industry trademark. "Mark is astonishingly gifted at persuading people," Parsons told The New York Times Magazine, in an article titled "Survival of the Pushiest," in 2001. Or, as Probst put it in 2004, "His ego is enormous. But in Mark’s case, it is part of what makes him so charming. This guy is not an accident. He knows what he’s doing." It would seem that CBS agreed; the network accepted the show, and Survivor got a season to prove itself.
Burnett has always had charm in his back pocket. Born in 1960, Burnett grew up in East London; it was a happy childhood. "I was an only child and never criticized my whole life," he told the Times Magazine. He watched American television: Starsky and Hutch, Dallas, The Rockford Files, and Bonanza. His parents often took him camping and hiking in their native Scotland, where Burnett claims to have gotten the taste for adventure. He loved to read Lord of the Flies.
Burnett skipped college and joined the British army’s elite Paratroop Regiment, and after the end of the Falklands War, he immigrated to Los Angeles, where — the legend has it — he convinced a wealthy Beverly Hills family that no one made a better nanny than a former paratrooper. He also made money selling T-shirts and signing people up for credit cards. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1990.
His first show idea came from an article about the Raid Gauloises, a modern adventure race first held in 1989. In 1994, Burnett built his own team to prepare. Later that year, with absolutely zero television experience, Burnett sold Eco-Challenge to MTV with nothing but a five-minute video of his personal experience on the Raid. Eco-Challenge was dubbed "the toughest race in the world": More than 50 teams of four people raced 24 hours a day over a 500-kilometer course using no motorized form of transport. As early as the first season, Burnett was known for compromising the integrity of the race — setting more hurdles to add drama — to increase its ratings. It paid off. Eco-Challenge ran for nine seasons (moving from MTV to ESPN, Discovery, and eventually to the USA Network) from 1995 to 2002, and its ratings increased almost every season.
After several years of producing Eco-Challenge, Burnett had a revelation: The success of the show "depended far more on team dynamics and interpersonal skills than any other attribute." He wanted to make a new show that would capitalize on those particular dynamics — or, as he wrote in his book, that would help men and women "discover who they really were." Based on Parsons’s Swedish series, which debuted in 1997 and had a similar premise — 16 people in the wilderness who form alliances to complete survival tasks — Survivor became America’s favorite show seemingly overnight.
Like Burnett, Survivor was charismatic and addictive and capitalized heavily on a superlative understanding of group dynamics. It was also just wild fun; there was always the possibility that a spider would emerge or the outback would destroy someone. The 16 contestants became minor celebrities. Richard Hatch, who won the first season after defeating a whitewater rafter in a 4–3 jury vote, was bombarded with press opportunities and became a reality show staple (The Biggest Loser, The Weakest Link, The Apprentice) afterward. Forty-three million people watched its post–Super Bowl episode in 2001.
The beauty of the show was — and is, 30-odd seasons in — its authenticity: the belief that the players were real people who, when put in such dire circumstances, would do surprising things to survive. Burnett has always been adamant that Survivor is not reality television. "It is dramality: unscripted nonfiction drama. With real people," he told People in 2001. That’s good marketing, and more evidence that Burnett knows exactly what people want to hear. ("In sales, you better know your product. You better be confident. You better be inspiring. And you better be able to deliver," he told Esquire in 2001.) But to sugarcoat its more manipulative aspects is to deny the revolutionary effect that Survivor had on reality television. Survivor established now-classic reality television concepts like the single-person interview-cum-confession, in which contestants speak directly to the camera (though usually prompted by a producer whom viewers never see). The idea of every week sending home a single person who had been voted off by their peers became a standard format on both Burnett’s shows and in the industry at large. And the show was innovative in its use of hidden cameras that shot far more than the contestants realized. "They have no idea how invasive television can be," Burnett wrote in Survivor: The Ultimate Game. Or at least, they didn’t until the show aired.
Burnett admitted to reshooting first-season scenes with stand-ins to give them better cinematic value. He knew where the money would be: "Viewer interest in the show will lie less with watching who takes home the cash than it will with observing how the game is played," Burnett told MediaWeek in 2000. To get the kind of fights and affection and betrayal that Survivor became known for, the contestants had to be manipulated, either directly or through circumstance. After the first season of Survivor, contestant Stacey Stillman filed a lawsuit claiming the producers interfered by persuading two of her tribe members to vote her off instead of someone else. In the deposition, one of her fellow contestants admitted that the producers were dropping hints about who would be best to vote off. (The case was eventually settled out of court.) "I’ve seen him get people to do things I would have bet money they would never do," Probst told Sports Illustrated.
So it wasn’t exactly authentic, but it was great television. Burnett was giving audiences a reality they could want: one where anyone has the potential for success and fame and fortune. And Americans bought it. With 16 people and an island, Mark Burnett radically changed television and gave himself a launching pad for the rest of his career. The industry effects are mind-boggling: Survivor is described by network executives as a "miracle show," and is still winning its time slot 32 seasons later. Probst, like The Bachelor’s Chris Harrison, has become a celebrity himself. Burnett has become incredibly wealthy; as the result of some innovative contract negotiations, he also reportedly earned himself a fee of just under $1 million per episode.) And Survivor’s sociological effects are no less profound, if slightly harder to measure or process: "More abstract and worrisome is the overall message the shows send: that life is an elimination contest, that difference means discord," James Poniewozik wrote for Time in 2000. You can tease this idea out past Survivor to most reality shows, to cable news, and even to media discourse as we know it. The game is persuasion, and people are playing it the way Burnett taught them.
Survivor was a ratings behemoth in its fourth season: 23 million people watched the premiere, and 25.9 million watched the finale, which took place at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. (The live season finale needed a venue big enough to host its fans and cinematic enough to provide a little extra drama.) The Wollman Rink is owned by Donald Trump, and Trump, for whatever reason — publicity, curiosity, financial gain — decided to attend the event. Burnett, never one to miss an opportunity, made sure to introduce himself. He told Trump that he had read his books (true) and that he was inspired by them (also true, at least in Trump’s retelling). Then he moved on to business: He wanted to make a new show, and he wanted Donald Trump to be the star.
Trump was used to the interest of reality show producers. As a regular New York Post cover star in the ’80s, he was the kind of giant personality a show could hang its hat on, but the first shows pitched to Trump were about the minutiae of his personal life — following Trump around while he met with politicians and contractors. No deal. He thought it would intrude too much into his business, and he still thought reality TV was for "the bottom-feeders of society."
But he met his match in Burnett. "Mark Burnett is a great visionary, able to see into the future with far better accuracy than any of his competitors," Trump wrote for Time in 2004. "His No. 1 talent is having the right idea at the right time. Where that kind of talent comes from is always a bit of a mystery."
Not long after their interaction at the finale, Burnett pitched The Apprentice to Trump at Trump Tower. The meeting lasted an hour, and — just as he had pitched Survivor — Burnett laid the whole thing out, down to the tiniest detail. The show would feature competitions between two teams like on Survivor. At the end of each episode, one person would be eliminated by Trump, and the final winner would get a six-figure salary and a job in the Trump Organization.
They shook on it. Trump got 50 percent ownership and a starring role on a show all about him. "I had never planned on being the star of a hit TV show until Mark Burnett came to me to do The Apprentice," Trump wrote in Time. "He convinced me by promising that it would require no more than three hours per week of my time. It turned out to be more than 30."
During the creation of the show, Burnett and Trump were seen together constantly: They rode in Trump’s limousine and helicopter. They played golf at one of his courses, went to a Neil Young concert, and enjoyed a Wyclef Jean record-release party. Burnett went so far as to tell The New York Times he considered Trump a "soul mate." "[The Apprentice] is Donald Trump giving back," Burnett told The New York Times in 2003. "What makes the world a safe place right now? I think it’s American dollars, which come from taxes, which come because of Donald Trump. … And what Donald Trump is doing and what ‘The Apprentice’ is about is to show Americans that you have to be an entrepreneur.’’ During Trump’s campaign for president, of course, it became highly questionable exactly how much in taxes he was paying. But it’s worth noting that Burnett presented Trump’s role on The Apprentice not as a grab for attention or power, but as his public service — to teach Americans how to become rich and famous like him.
"My style is quiet micromanagement," Burnett wrote in his Survivor book. Quietly, he led Trump right into a rebrand. "I’m the largest real estate developer in New York," Trump’s voice-over boasts in the opening scene for The Apprentice Season 1. "I own buildings all over the place. Model agencies, the Miss Universe pageant, jetliners, golf courses, casinos, and private resorts like Mar-a-Lago. … I’ve mastered the art of the deal and have turned the name Trump into the highest-quality brand. And as the master, I want to pass along some of my knowledge to somebody else."
It was braggadocios and pompous. But Burnett, with his gut instinct, managed to turn Trump’s liabilities (both financial and personal) into a gift. The show had been conceived of as a business-focused Survivor, and the corporate dealings were intended to be the heart of the show. But the most interesting television came around the giant wooden boardroom table where Trump evaluated the contestants. "After the first episode," Jeff Gaspin, who ran reality programming for NBC, told Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, "we said we want more Trump."
So did America. The show had 27 million viewers by the end of the first season. Trump did nine interviews promoting the show the morning after the premiere. He was invited on talk shows and Today. He went on Howard Stern; he was on the cover of Esquire. "You can’t ask for more than the audience to care more for the characters," Burnett said in 2004. "Now even Donald’s detractors like him. I knew I could bring that across." Even Trump himself recognized the change. "What I do on the show essentially is analyze people and then fire somebody — sometimes pretty viciously. And that makes people think I’m a nice guy," Trump told Esquire in 2004. "Whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre."
More than that, Trump’s character became exactly what Burnett hoped to make out of the show: a sellable example of American possibility. "Americans are very giving. They’re very pro-risk," Burnett told Esquire in 2001. "They’re interested in results — not what you tell them or which school you went to or who you know. America equals meritocracy. I’m all for it." This is not a reality that actually exists for most Americans; social mobility is successively rarer for each generation, and capitalist success is more likely to go to people with a $14 million head start, like Trump. But as a Brit, Burnett tapped into a belief that the rest of the world held about America: "If a working-class kid from London, who starts off as a nanny, can make it in the United States, anybody can," he wrote in Jump In: Even If You Don’t Know How to Swim. It was an idea that America still wanted to see in itself — so much so that it was willing to accept Donald Trump, a preening millionaire, as an avatar of hard work and achievable success.
There was another facet to Burnett’s zest for capitalism, and that was his innovation in product placement. Burnett had experimented with the deals on Survivor, but by the time The Apprentice premiered in January 2004, he’d turned his hobby into a full-fledged art form. In the first season of The Apprentice there are almost 40 different product placements: A contestant holds a Coca-Cola; a city shot shows a pair of Reebok sneakers. By the second season, contestants were producing M&M candy. This open display of consumerism was shameless and, honestly, kind of tacky. "People were blaming me personally for ‘Apprentice,’ destroying television with so many brands," Jordan Yospe, general counsel for Mark Burnett Productions, told The New York Times in 2010. "Mark has attacked the business from a very, very unusual point of view," Les Moonves said in 2004. "And along the way he’s created business models that didn’t exist before."
But Burnett wasn’t trying to create television that would win awards for its artistry — Burnett, like Trump, and like the contestants on The Celebrity Apprentice, was trying to make money. And if that meant blurring boundaries between sponsored advertisements and the content he produced, so be it.
Once upon a time, in 2001, Mark Burnett and Vladimir Putin were going to make a reality show together. It’s true; it was openly discussed in The New York Times. The show was going to be called Destination Mir; the idea was Survivor, but staged as a space race. Contestants would compete to train with astronauts; Burnett had to negotiate with Russia because the final prize involved sending the winner to their space station. The Russians, according to an NBC press release, were more willing to work with the show than was America’s NASA program. "I think ‘Mir’ is going to be hard only as a political thing," Burnett told The New York Times Magazine. "The show will be easy. I really want to do a space show. And, typically, I’m quite good at making things happen."
But Destination Mir never happened. The Russian space station Mir was rapidly deteriorating, and the Russians eventually decommissioned and destroyed it. Unburned pieces of the station fell into the Pacific Ocean. It was surely a disappointment for Burnett, who continues to chase his space show. (He tried and failed again in 2013.) He also, as recently as 2015, was still interested in making a show with Putin.
Destination Mir is a rarity on Burnett’s résumé: an idea that never saw the light of day. This is a man who is used to green lights; Burnett has been the executive producer on more than 60 television series, and that doesn’t even count miniseries and made-for-TV movies. "The reality of the nonfiction television business is that there are so few producers who really know what they’re doing that the good ones tend to produce more shows than they are humanly capable of producing," fellow producer Michael Davies said about Burnett. As early as 2004, Burnett was grabbing as many shows as possible. "He has two monster hits, which are the two most important shows at the two leading networks. He can basically get any show done anywhere," Moonves told Fortune in 2004.
Not all of those series worked out. There are dozens of Burnett shows that ran two or fewer seasons and were utterly forgettable: Combat Missions (2002), in which elite military and police force members competed on assigned missions; The Restaurant (2003), which followed the drama within a New York City restaurant (not unlike, actually, the current reality hit Vanderpump Rules); Rock Star: INXS (2005), which tried to find a new lead singer for the ’80s band INXS; Amne$ia (2007), a quiz show where contestants answer questions from their own life for money; and on and on and on. Our Little Genius, a quiz game show starring children, was canceled before it even aired, after concerns were raised that the child contestants had been given information about the questions beforehand. "I believe my series must always be beyond reproach, so I have requested that Fox not air these episodes," Burnett said in a statement.
But his success streak is still extraordinary. His empire is built on five mega-hit shows: Survivor; The Apprentice and its celebrity offshoot; Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?; The Voice; and Shark Tank. For the uninitiated: On Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, adults attempt to answer questions from elementary school textbooks while actual fifth-graders answer the questions in real time and provide assistance to the struggling adults. On The Voice, four celebrity judges pick talented vocalists to "mentor" and join their "teams," and the aspiring singers face off against one another every week. On Shark Tank, entrepreneurs present their business pitches to a panel of very rich (and occasionally famous) men and women who then decide whether to invest in the inventor’s product. All five shows involve a financial prize, and four out of five are still running. (Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? has had multiple lives on syndication, and there were new episodes as recently as 2015.) "[Reality show] formats are like a board game," Burnett told The Washington Post. "Certain games just work."
Together these shows represent more than 15 years of network domination. On a given week in 2016, Burnett could’ve had a top-rated show in prime time on four nights of the week: The Voice on Monday and Tuesday, Survivor on Wednesday, and Shark Tank on Fridays. The Voice (both nights) and Survivor consistently ranked in the top 25 broadcast shows of the week in the fall of 2016.
It would be easy for him at this point to take a step back, but Burnett is still deeply involved. "I talk to everybody all the time," Burnett told Esquire in 2013. Early in his career, Burnett was known for staggering the film dates of all of his shows so that he could be on set for every single one of them. More recently, he bankrolled a Voice mentor bonding retreat at the L.A. Soho House with his own credit card. ("Big mistake," Adam Levine told Burnett afterward, according to Rolling Stone. "We just killed your fucking credit card.") "I only know how to be hands on," he told The New York Times. "The best person to get something done is a busy person."
That involvement has also allowed him to gently shift the tone of his empire over time. Late-period Burnett — from, say, 2008 on — is characterized by a kindness that is not usually featured on reality television, or even on a show like Survivor. Unlike American Idol or The X Factor, which predicated their drama on participants’ failure, Burnett’s newer shows try to avoid that. "The format is so clean and so engaging and focuses on very good talent," Burnett told Rolling Stone, in regard to The Voice. "There’s nothing on the show where we bring in a very bad singer and have our coaches try to make comedy out of how bad they are." In other words, there’s no ill will. "His intention has been nothing but supportive, giving, kind and nurturing," Christina Aguilera said in 2013.
At every Burnett show’s core there is the same premise: that people, no matter how terrible they are, deserve to be rooted for, and that a show full of those people will entice viewers. In the second portion of Burnett’s career — at least up until the new Celebrity Apprentice — that premise has become narrower: If you show empathy, viewers will become emotionally attached to the people on TV no matter what else they are known for.
"We’re focused on family programming. The shows are all dramatic but fun," Burnett told Esquire in 2013. "There’s no gratuitous violence. No gratuitous sex or swearing. Even on Survivor, you’ve never seen one inch of a butt crack, because we blur it." On Survivor, that blurring probably had more to do with prime-time censorship laws, but in the modern era, Burnett shows are intentional in whom they are appealing to. In 2016, words like "family programming" reveal an affiliation with a particular political party, a particular religion, and a very particular belief about the way media should be presented.
There is a capitalist explanation for all this conservatism: the more offensive (in any way) a show might be, the fewer people become an available audience for that show. No matter your beliefs, it’s hard to be offended by a game show of people trying their hardest to succeed. Burnett’s shows, from Survivor through Shark Tank, do something that few other shows do: They draw large numbers of viewers across demographic and income brackets. That universal appeal creates money. And money seemed to be the end goal of all of this work for Burnett. Until suddenly, almost overnight, it didn’t.
"Religion is a waste of time. I can’t understand how millions of Muslims could be wrong. Or millions of Jews. Or millions of Hindus. How can they all be wrong and only one religion be right?" Burnett told Esquire in 2001. "Obviously, I believe in God," he adds later in the interview. "Look at me right now."
What Burnett believes in the privacy of his own home, of course, is between him and the god he may or may not believes exists. But what is clear is that at some point, Burnett changed his mind publicly. "I have become in the last ten years very connected to my Christian faith," Burnett told Esquire in March 2013. When asked explicitly how he came to faith by Risen Magazine in 2013, Burnett dodged the question. "It’s such a funny question, because it makes the assumption that most people in Hollywood have no faith," he said. "I come across people in this business every day that have lots of faith."
What Burnett has talked a lot about is why he became more vocal about his Christianity. Based on an interview he gave to Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in 2012, it seems that fear might have been a motivating factor. "Have you ever sat on an airplane and wondered if this thing goes down where do I fit into this society?" he said. "Am I the leader or the follower? Am I brave, am I weak? I always wondered these things." (So have many Survivor contestants over the years, in remarkably similar language.)
The other constant in his faith is his wife, Roma Downey. Burnett was married before, to a woman named Dianne J. Burnett (neé Valentine), who later claimed that she came up with much of the original premise for Survivor. (Mark Burnett denied this vehemently.) The two obtained a legal separation in 2003, and somewhere around 2004, Burnett began dating Downey, an actress known for her role as Monica on the CBS series Touched by an Angel. Downey, who was raised Roman Catholic, may have played some role in Burnett’s revival. The two were engaged in 2006, and married in 2007.
Burnett has always turned the things he believes in — the great outdoors, the authenticity of people, the American Dream — into prime-time television. His faith was a logical next step. Together with Downey, Burnett made The Bible, a 10-part scripted miniseries that aired on the History Channel in March 2013. Unlike other Bible-based entertainment, Downey and Burnett prized fidelity to the original source above all. They created thunderstorms and filmed on location in deserts and mountains and plains. War scenes were filmed like they were parts of a feature-length film, with dust rising from the ground. Walls fell. Seas split. Men were set on fire. In a way, it was the perfect American entertainment: a gory war drama, uncensored but holy, and family friendly by its very definition.
Burnett called the series the "most important project I have ever undertaken." But still, a religious project from the King of Reality Television was not without risk. "Of course, our friends told us we’d destroy our great careers because … no one would watch the Bible on prime-time TV," Burnett said at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2016. "And 100 million of you watched it."
That particular statistic is open to interpretation. According to Nielsen ratings, 13.1 million people watched the two-hour premiere; the History Channel estimates that 100 million viewers is the cumulative total for every night’s viewings combined. In any case, The Bible had legs. It received three Emmy nominations, and set off a kind of conservative Christian media snowball. Burnett’s Bible series was picked up for a sequel on NBC, which aired in 2015 (and was canceled after one season). CBS invited Burnett and Downey to create a miniseries based on Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers; TLC asked the duo to create a six-part series about people who experienced divine intervention. Lifetime tapped the couple to make a special about biblical women. And in the biggest industry coup, they signed a deal with Paramount to produce a feature-length remake of Ben-Hur.
It’s worth noting that none of these spin-offs performed as well as The Bible did, and that Ben-Hur, in particular, was a massive box office failure. But Burnett seems to hold his faith-based projects to a different standard than his commercial pursuits. In that same National Prayer Breakfast speech, Burnett explained that it was "leverage" from high-rating shows like Shark Tank and The Apprentice that had allowed him to make his religious projects. "Our faith has, in fact, led us to almost entirely build our TV careers and film careers on family-friendly franchises," he said. By 2015, he was giving regular interviews about his faith and comparing himself to Billy Graham, a renowned Christian evangelist, in Time.
He had also, by this point, inserted himself more explicitly into the American political process. Burnett’s 2010 Sarah Palin series represents another turning point in his career, even if his intentions are harder to parse. Burnett himself was not a died-in-the-wool Palin supporter; he’d contributed to the DNC and to Obama’s 2008 campaign. Downey, meanwhile, openly defended Obama as a "fellow Christian."
Still, Burnett was hell-bent on making Sarah Palin’s Alaska. He had a hard time persuading networks to take the series; Palin was, justifiably or not, the laughing stock of the 2008 campaign season. A broadcast network, as Entertainment Weekly surmised, probably wouldn’t want to be credited with giving Palin a platform if she chose to run for president in 2016. (We will come back to that irony.) Burnett finally found it a home at TLC, where he insisted on calling the show a "documentary series" and himself a documentary filmmaker. The final product was beautifully, cannily cut as a hymnal to Alaska, and it openly pandered to Palin’s already solid GOP base. And it was a hit: Almost 5 million people watched the premiere, making it the biggest in TLC history.
"The whole package is a calculated paean to her down-home, self-reliant frontiersiness," wrote Frank Rich for The New York Times. It’s true: There are gorgeous shots of Palin fishing, beautiful pans of her standing at the top of the world, endearing moments of her loving her family. At best, it’s biased; at worst, it’s propaganda. Yet Burnett immediately pushed back against any criticism that linked him, or Sarah Palin’s Alaska, to the Republican Party. The show "is completely non-political," he told The Daily Beast. "I honestly am so disinterested in politics. I’d rather be riding my bike."
But it was a key to Burnett’s particular brand of politics. Burnett is not a public figure who comes out openly in favor of or against candidates. Instead, the conversations he creates with the American public function as letters of recommendation. On Shark Tank, he’s producing an ode to entrepreneurs and the billionaires who invest in them; in Sarah Palin’s Alaska, he created a beautiful portrait of a former vice presidential candidate and the Republican Party that saw fit to embrace her values.
As Burnett pointed out at the prayer breakfast, his conservative turn certainly hasn’t hurt his mainstream business model. Republicans buy sneakers, too, as Michael Jordan once (apocryphally) pointed out, and religious viewers make for big paychecks. "At least 90 million American Christians attend church each Sunday. It’s a mainstream community which also watches NFL games, The Voice, and family-friendly comedies and dramas," Burnett wrote in an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter. "The global Christian audience consumes media, buys products, votes, gives to charity and supports causes. It’s a community that we are grateful to be part of." Or as he put it to a church congregation in 2015: "I often joke that America was built on two things: the Bible and free enterprise," Burnett said. "Well, we made The Bible and we make Shark Tank." Which is maybe the best key we have to his intentions. Burnett doesn’t just view what he’s doing as creating good, lucrative television — he sees himself as building the myth of America.
"If Donald Trump gets elected and he builds that wall, the first person we are throwing over it is Mark Burnett." Jimmy Kimmel’s joke went on from there, but the Emmys camera stayed on Burnett, sitting in the audience with his mouth slightly open, rocking slightly back and forth. He was laughing, but he looked vaguely uncomfortable. He wasn’t the only one.
Trump announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015. Burnett was nowhere to be seen, and at that point, why would he have been? No one took Trump seriously. He was a buffoon with a toupee who would never be the nominee. It didn’t occur to anyone to blame Burnett at that point; it wasn’t obvious that the world he’d been creating would become ours, too.
Throughout the campaign, Burnett stayed out of the spotlight; when asked about his involvement in the Republican National Convention in July, Burnett went so far as to claim to The New York Times that he was ignorant about the American political process because of his British birth. Then he asked whether the RNC got good ratings. It was a question that Trump had been asking, too.
In October, a few weeks after the Emmys, a tape of unaired footage from a 2005 Access Hollywood segment came to light. On the tape, Trump speaks crassly about women on his way to the set of Days of Our Lives with Billy Bush. "I did try and fuck her. She was married," Trump said on the tape. "I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married." More highlights: "And when you’re a star, they let you do it," Trump brags. "You can do anything." And then there’s that all too-famous line. "Grab them by the pussy," he says.
Americans on both sides of the aisle were outraged. On CNN, Republican strategist Ana Navarro said that Trump "consistently disgusted" her, and repeated his comments, only to be yelled at by right-wing journalist Scottie Nell Hughes, who wanted her to stop using the word "pussy" on television. The words used by Trump in the video were so lewd that news services had internal debates about whether they would even air the comments, and if they would, how much they would censor the remarks. The tape was the lead story in almost every newspaper and every lead broadcast.
And then there was a collective realization: Trump had been on television consistently since The Apprentice aired in 2004. A former Apprentice staffer named Bill Pruitt tweeted shortly afterward that more tapes existed: "As a producer on seasons 1 & 2 of [The Apprentice,] I assure you: when it comes to the #trumptapes there are far worse [examples]." The media pressure and petitions began; people said Burnett should release the tapes in the public interest.
That didn’t happen. There were nondisclosure agreements in play, which meant that most junior employees were at too much risk to leak any information. (Being on the bad side of any successful and powerful Hollywood producer isn’t exactly desirable.) BuzzFeed News reported that former staff members of The Apprentice had been threatened with lawsuits in the event that the tapes would be leaked, though Burnett later denied this. In any case, few people wanted to speak out against Burnett, and even fewer people wanted to test the powers of his formidable legal team.
"Despite reports to the contrary, Mark Burnett does not have the ability nor the right to release footage or other material from ‘The Apprentice,’" Burnett and MGM announced in a statement. (Whether or not that’s true is known only by his lawyers, who did not comment.) Burnett released an additional personal comment to clarify his intentions: "I am not now and have never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy. I am NOT ‘Pro-Trump.’ Further, my wife and I reject the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign." Burnett stopped giving interviews otherwise.
It’s possible that Burnett was offended by the rhetoric thrown from the pulpit of the Trump campaign — this is a man who wouldn’t show butt cracks on Survivor — but it is difficult to separate that personal offense from the financial imperative that he remain as unbiased as possible. To be associated with the Trump campaign was bad for business, and it seems Burnett, always attentive to the bottom line, knew it. The statement carefully walked a fine line: Burnett was not "Pro-Trump," and he rejected the mean words, but he was not "anti-Trump" either. And he certainly did not take a step toward being "Pro-Hillary." Instead, he distanced himself from the campaign far enough for him to fade from the headlines and out of people’s minds in time for them to click on The Voice at 8/7c. As Burnett wrote in his Survivor book, "Even the best of friends will eventually vote against each other." Whatever Burnett believes and whoever he voted for in November, his statement only serviced his own preservation.
"What we learned from ‘Survivor’ is how clever and cerebral the viewers are," Burnett told The New York Times ahead of the 2000 election. "If the politicians in these debates think they’re pulling the wool over the American people’s eyes, they’re crazy." He’s right. Americans vote for the person they believe will make their lives and their country better. In 2016, that candidate was the person Burnett had been selling as the man who knew business, the key to the American Dream, and the future they could have: Donald Trump.
A highlight of Survivor Season 1 was a manipulation by eventual winner Richard Hatch, who created a subgroup among a few members of his tribe. Early on, certain contestants were cut from the tribes by wide consensus because of physical weaknesses or annoying personalities. But in Episode 5, "Pulling Your Own Weight," the game changed. Richard’s four-person alliance colluded in secret, walked purposefully into their voting booths, and cooly voted off Dirk to maintain the strength of their group. It took the other members of the tribe weeks to catch on to the alliance.
In 2016, a different voting bloc would emerge to win the day. After the votes were cast, and the confetti cannons were set off, and Donald Trump was declared president-elect of the United States, Mark Burnett slowly, carefully returned to the side of his former good friend. On Tuesday, December 6, Burnett met with the president-elect at his office in Trump Tower to discuss possibilities for the inauguration. According to The New York Times, Burnett was full of ideas, including a helicopter ride from New York to Washington — recall Jeff Probst’s dramatic helicopter rides through several Survivor finales — and a parade up Fifth Avenue. These particular ideas reportedly won’t pan out. But Burnett is back where he started 13 years ago, at the right hand of Donald Trump. And tonight on January 2, the president-elect’s name will appear as an executive producer on The Celebrity Apprentice — right next to Mark Burnett’s.
Kelsey McKinney is a writer living in Washington, D.C.