Mark Burnett has produced more than 2,200 hours of TV programming, with current hits including Survivor, The Voice, The Celebrity Apprentice and Shark Tank.
He took to the stage at MIPCOM 2012 today for a Media Mastermind keynote, giving his thoughts on the industry, and his own future plans.
“The one through-line in all the pieces is narrative,” he said, while rubbishing recent suggestions that narrative storytelling is falling in popularity. “Just because it’s called non-fiction – I hate the word ‘reality’ by the way, it’s a journalistic made-up word. It’s just non-fiction storytelling.”
That said, he noted that One Three Media is getting into scripted television too. “The reason our shows do so well is quality,” said Burnett.
“I don’t want to make crappy shows, and make a lot of them and hope for the best… If you’re making, oh pick one, Survivor, we treated that as if we’re making a $100m movie. It is a total privilege to be given an hour of prime-time American television.”
Burnett said that non-fiction producers have “no right” taking things cheaply when making their shows. “I’ve got news for you: the audience aren’t in the TV Guide saying ‘this show cost $1m and this show cost $4m. They couldn’t care less… It’s character, story arcs and emotional connection.”
He talked about the attention to detail for Survivor, including the way it uses firelight as the lighting for its Tribal Council feature, extinguishing the flame of the evictee as soon as they’re voted out. It’s all about building an emotional connection with viewers, and also creating a feeling of death and rebirth.
“It’s narrative storytelling. It’s emotional connection. It’s not lazy producing,” said Burnett. “I feel it’s very tough now to have top shows… But the one thing you can assure yourself of not having hit shows is not thinking. You have to treat yourself as if you wanna be Steven Spielberg.”
Burnett also talked about The Apprentice, and the attention to detail that went into making its viewers feel a similar connection.
“You need great teams,” he continued. “I’ve had the same people working with me from the beginning. People have been with me forever. We have in my company a ‘No Asshole’ policy… In this business, there’s so much backtalking behind people’s backs, and fakeness. A lot of people in this room should probably be ashamed of themselves. It’s not the way I run my company.”
Burnett called for more “good energy” and teamwork in the TV industry. “How could you have five top shows on five nights in one country, and obviously around the world? It’s other people.”
Burnett’s next project is a biggie: The Bible. “I think it’s the underpinning of the greatest storytelling in the history of the world. Otherwise, why would we be in 2012 when it’s growing bigger than ever?” he said, before showing a trailer.
“It’s very likely to be the biggest thing I’ve worked on in my life, and seen by more people than all my other shows put together.”