Mark Burnett: The king of the jungle that is reality TV

The man behind some of US television's biggest hits - The Apprentice, Survivor and The Contender - is an ex-paratrooper from London. Michael Park meets him
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The Independent Online

When executive producer Mark Burnett, the British-born creator of some of America's biggest reality television hits, decided to make reality boxing show The Contender, he was so determined not to look a chump that he hired a champ - and a Trump.

Celebrity businessman turned television personality Donald Trump and legendary fighter Sugar Ray Leonard were only too pleased to be Burnett's cornermen. "Mark is an extraordinary salesman and an extraordinary visionary," said Mr Trump, whose profile and bank balance both rose dramatically after agreeing to work with Burnett on the original American version of The Apprentice.

"His brain never stops," is how Leonard, a presenter on The Contender, sums up his employer. "Very observant, very creative."

A former member of the British Parachute Regiment, Burnett arrived in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s, started selling insurance, and then worked as a nanny in Beverly Hills.

Today, Burnett is one of American television's most sought-after producers. His credits include Survivor, which in America is one of the most successful reality series ever, and The Apprentice, which he created. The Londoner has also produced reality series about a casino, a restaurant, and the rock band INXS. He has won two Emmys, appeared on Oprah, written his autobiography and now runs his own production company in west Los Angeles.

Sitting in his long, narrow office on a rainy weekday morning, Burnett, 46, explains how he transformed himself from soldier (he left the Paras in 1982 after taking part in the Falklands War) into hit producer.

"I'm sure you've read my book so you know the story," he says. "The important things to note are that I ended up working as a nanny and the big thing that came out of that was, a: how wealthy Americans lived and, b: how not that dissimilar that I was. There didn't seem to be a big difference in logical thinking. I'm sure there was an educational divide, but there wasn't a difference in logic and there certainly wasn't a difference in motivation and I learnt a lot - like a little apprenticeship for myself in what's possible."

Yet, missing the adrenalin rush of life in the Paras, Burnett decided to take part in a global adventure race, the "Raid Gauloises", and more importantly decided to try to make a television show out of it.

"Fifty per cent was how you could possibly organise an event and a television production around an event if you'd never done it," he recalls. "People often laugh at me around here - less, lately - that I'm a method producer, like a method actor. I'm the kind of person who if I was playing the role of someone who got shot, I'd probably want to get shot so I knew what it felt like."

Burnett bought the American broadcast rights to the race and persuaded a local LA station to make a 90-minute special and give him the finished show, which he was then able to resell to other broadcasters. He gave the whole package to national sports channel ESPN, in return for the money from half of the commercials that ran during the show.

A year later, Burnett created an endurance race of his own, Eco-Challenge, and made a series of programmes based around that. Shortly afterwards he heard about Survivor, and teamed up with Planet 24 and Charlie Parsons to make the US version.

"Survivor wouldn't have happened [in America] had I not gone out there and helped CBS to sell sponsors to finance the first one," says Burnett. "Part of my thinking on Survivor was that it should have rewards that are corporate brands. A Big Mac, one thimble-full of Coca-Cola. I knew from my days in the Parachute Regiment what it's like to have nothing decent to eat. So that was a humourous way to involve brands."

After the success of Survivor, the US networks beat a path to Burnett's door, but it was while he was in a tent in the Amazon working on the sixth series that he had his next big idea. "I was literally living in a tent for months of the year and I kept thinking, there must be a way to make a show in a city," says Burnett.

"I saw a bunch of ants eating a carcass in the jungle and it reminded me of New York. You know, all these people crawling all over each other. Then I thought, what could I do in a place like New York? People need jobs; they need money. How about a televised job interview? And from that came the idea that the job better be fantastic, and having already met Donald Trump, I thought I would get the job from Donald Trump."

Trump says: "Every network wanted me to do a reality show and I kept turning them down. Then Mark approached me and almost from the beginning I said, 'This guy is something special'."

Burnett sold the format to the BBC, which remade the series (a third series is in pre-production) offering a job with Alan Sugar as the main prize.

Not all of Burnett's shows need to be remade. The second series of Burnett's boxing series The Contender will air in its original form on ITV4. "The Contender came from a meeting with (film producer) Jeff Katzenberg," says Burnett. "He asked me if I liked boxing and I said,'I used to but I don't like it any more. I don't even know the name of the champion'. And Jeff Katzenberg said, 'Exactly. That's the opportunity. No one cares about the characters, so let's do something together to create characters that people care about.'"

Burnett says he has no plans to return to live in the UK. However, the one thing he does lament is that he did not personally produce the first Survivor in Britain. "It just didn't have my touch to it," he says.