How Mark Burnett Created Reality TV — and Donald Trump

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.’’ 

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.”

Mark's 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 uninitiatedOn 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.

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.

And then there was a collective realization: Trump had been on television consistently since The Apprentice aired in 2004. 

“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.

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.


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