He’s a former British paratrooper and one-time Beverly Hills nanny who made a fortune inventing reality TV with Survivor and producing shows for every network. He’s a devout Christian who, with his wife Roma Downey, has generated blockbuster religious programming, raised money for displaced Christians in Syria and Iraq and counts prominent evangelicals among his allies.
He’s also a past donor to Democratic political campaigns, chief among them Barack Obama’s, and his closest family friends and mentors include the Hollywood uber-liberal Jeffrey Katzenberg.
And now, because of the accident of his collaboration with Donald Trump, for whom he created The Apprentice—the franchise that launched Trump’s political career—Mark Burnett is sitting squarely on top of what could be the hottest story in American politics, with no apparent prospect that he will ever tell it. Or let it be told. To the world, that might look as if Burnett is covering for the man whose Trump: The Art of the Deal he has said helped inspire him to reboot his own life in what would prove to be a phenomenally lucrative way.
But one longtime Hollywood executive who knows Burnett well and considers him a friend says that, contrary to some media reports, Burnett is not supporting Trump politically and has, in fact, long been privately appalled by the mogul’s crudeness. “They made a lot of money together,” the executive says. “That’s all.”
What’s holding Burnett back, insiders explain, is nothing more than the keen business acumen, airtight contractual arrangements and salesmanship that have propelled him to the top of his profession.
Since last weekend, when Bill Pruitt, a former Apprentice producer, tweeted in the aftermath of Trump’s lewd and abusive comments about women in old Access Hollywood outtakes that “there are far worse” Trump comments in the Apprentice archives, the most fevered parlor game from Hollywood to Washington to New York has been when or whether such material might surface.
Another former Burnett producer, Chris Nee, later claimed on Twitter—in a tweet since deleted—that she had heard from Apprentice producers and crew that Trump had been heard using the “N-word,” and that the contractual penalty for any Burnett employee who disclosed proprietary information about the show was $5 million. (Nee later said she had only heard rumors of Trump’s words.) And the Associated Press reported that former crew members, staffers and contestants on the show said Trump used demeaning and sexist language about female contestants, ranked them by breast size and talked about which ones he’d like to have sex with.
After a 48-hour furor in which various Hillary Clinton supporters offered to raise the money to compensate any whistleblower, Burnett and MGM, which acquired his production company for more than $500 million over the past two years and installed him as its head of its television arm, sought to douse the flames in a statement late Monday.
“MGM owns Mark Burnett’s production company and The Apprentice is one of its properties,” the joint statement says. “Despite reports to the contrary, Mark Burnett does not have the ability nor the right to release footage or other material from The Apprentice. Various contractual and legal requirements also restrict MGM’s ability to release such material.” Burnett’s office did not return messages from POLITICO seeking further comment.
Stiff penalties for unauthorized disclosure are standard practice for reality television series—in which suspense and surprise are crucial elements of the shows. Moreover, as the star—and a partner—in The Apprentice, industry experts say, Trump himself might well have the legal right to control the release of any outtakes or other unused material, including written transcripts, which are routinely used as an aid in editing and shaping the shows.
“Big stars—and here Trump is in that category—are often given that benefit,” says one top studio lawyer, who is not involved in The Apprentice and has no firsthand knowledge of Trump’s deal with Burnett.
Another longtime television executive, involved with a rival reality show, notes that whatever Burnett’s political or personal beliefs, it would be highly damaging to his standing in the industry—where he has a reputation as the sharpest of deal-makers—if he released proprietary material. “There’s no upside to it,” the executive says. “You erode any trust that anyone ever had in you. Who would ever want to work with you again?”
But the pressure shows little sign of abating. On Tuesday, the civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred and representatives of the California branch of the National Organization for Women and the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus marched to MGM’s headquarters in Beverly Hills to present an open letter demanding release of the tapes as “a civic duty.”
For its part, NBC has taken pains to explain that Burnett’s company delivered each episode of The Apprentice to the network as a finished package, and controls the raw footage. But since it was the success of The Apprentice that helped revive NBC’s moribund primetime lineup more than a decade ago, that leaves the network’s news division, already under fire for moving slowly to release the Access Hollywood footage, which the network does control, in an awkward spot.
“Ethically, I think it’s a very 21st century moment,” says one veteran Hollywood producer who has also worked with Burnett. “Will there be whistleblowers within the company who have access to the data and leak it. If you’re NBC News, aren’t you just hammering your bosses to get it?”
Burnett, 56, once summed up his philosophy by saying, “I’d rather go for it than not have done it. Falling on my face is not painful to me.”
In fact, his rise to the top of the television heap might once have seemed improbable. He grew up the only child of Ford Motor Company factory workers in suburban London and at 17 joined the British Army, eventually becoming a section commander in the parachute regiment (the equivalent of a U.S. Army Ranger). He saw combat duty in the Falkland Islands war, and in 1982 struck out for the United States, where a friend had emigrated some years before.
He found work as a nanny and housekeeper—first in Beverly Hills and then in Malibu—but once joked that he was so bad at his cleaning duties that the family he worked for had to hire a housekeeper to clean the house, “including my room.” He worked for a time in an insurance office of the family that employed him, but found he could make more money by selling second-quality designer T-shirts on Venice Beach on the weekends. (He’d buy them for $2 each and sell them for $18.)
In 1991, he joined a French adventure competition, later buying the format rights and bringing his first show—Eco-Challenge, a race contest over grueling terrain—to American cable TV, first on MTV and ESPN, and eventually on the Discovery Channel.
In 2000, he got his big break with Survivor, a summer replacement show on CBS. The series was a smash and the rest is history, from The Apprentice, to Shark Tank, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Rock Star, Pirate Master and The Voice. Form his earliest days on Survivor, Burnett began direct negotiations with would-be advertisers, many of whom gave him commitments before his shows ever hit the air.
Burnett has said many times that he was inspired to take the initial risk of becoming a TV entrepreneur—to “Jump In” as he titled his 2005 book—in part by having read The Art of the Deal in his shirt-selling days. He would later convey that enthusiasm to Trump—never a man to look askance at flattery—when pitching him for what would become The Apprentice. Burnett knew the story of Trump’s renovation of Wollman Rink in Central Park and could recite it back to The Donald chapter and verse. A symbiotic partnership was born almost on the spot.
“He’s one of the kings of the hill,” says another longtime television production executive, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize a rival. “And not surprisingly, he’s very much about Mark Burnett.”
Burnett has long since punched virtually every ticket in the business, producing such awards shows as the annual People’s Choice Awards and the Primetime Emmys, earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and playing host an annual Christmas party in early December that draws the cream of the industry. People who have worked with Burnett, who was raised by a Presbyterian mother and Catholic father, say he apparently became more religious after getting together with the Irish-born Downey, a devout Catholic who wears her faith on her sleeve and starred for nine years in the CBS series Touched by an Angel. The couple married in 2007, several years after his divorce from his first wife, Dianne, with whom he has two sons, and they have been active in religious and charitable causes at home and abroad.
Not all his creative ventures have succeeded. His and Downey’s 2013 miniseries documentary version of the Bible for the History Channel was a global sensation, tapping the market for religious programming. But their remake of Ben-Hur this summer was one of the year’s biggest and most expensive big screen duds and failed to find favor with its target audience. That was a blow to the bottom line of MGM and Paramount Pictures, which distributed the movie, and to Burnett’s brand but not to his bottom line; he remains, by most accounts, a millionaire a couple of hundred times over.
Burnett has distilled his business approach in an epigram: “Having the same sales pitch is stupid. Always adjust what you’re saying based on the person you’re hoping will give you their money.” Indeed, he has produced almost every kind of reality programming, for every conceivable audience.
In Hollywood this year, Burnett’s long and close professional association with Trump has not gone unnoticed. There were reports—later staunchly denied by Burnett’s representatives—that he would have a hand in planning for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and various reports—also flatly denied—have persisted that he was backing Trump’s campaign.
“Many have asked, who is to blame for Donald Trump?” Jimmy Kimmel said in his opening monologue at the Emmy Awards last month. “And I’ll tell you who. He’s sitting right there. That guy. Mark Burnett, the man who brought us Celebrity Apprentice. Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows because we’re living in one. If Donald Trump gets elected, and he builds that wall, the first person we’re throwing over is Mark Burnett.”
When cameras panned to Burnett, he laughed and took the joke in stride, and when asked about it later in the press room, after winning an Emmy himself for The Voice, Burnett said, “I’m sure Donald is thrilled. I bet he’s emailing Jimmy now…How much free media can any one person get?”
Perhaps paradoxically, given all the focus on Trump, one of Burnett’s closest friendships is with Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, a major Clinton supporter. The two worked together on The Contender, a boxing reality series starring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard. Two years ago, when one of Burnett’s sons was hospitalized with a brain tumor, Katzenberg and his wife Marilyn reportedly visited him every day.
For now, the question of just what might be in The Apprentice vaults remains a matter of conjecture—if informed and fevered conjecture. After his initial tweet—As a producer on seasons 1 & 2 of #theapprentice I assure you: when it comes to the #trump tapes there are far worse. #justthebeginning.—former producer Pruitt went silent and has declined requests to elaborate, perhaps bound by a non-disclosure clause himself.
At least one apparently authentic transcript of unaired material has surfaced, in The Huffington Post. In those excerpts, Trump is heard using vulgarities to describe the skin of one contestant, Emily West, an aspiring musician who later appeared on America’s Got Talent. “Her skin sucks, her skin sucks, OK?” Trump is quoted as saying at one point. Cyndi Lauper, who was part of the team managing West, told The Huffington Post that, “Yes, of course,” Trump had said such things.
Interestingly, in the transcript, Trump is recorded as saying, “I assume you’re gonna leave this off…” when making such comments, as if realizing himself that they would not look good in the light of day.
Hollywood is a town that thrives on gossip and leaks every bit as much as Washington, so it wouldn’t be surprising if more Trump outtakes surface as they did in the Washington Post on Friday—no matter the potential financial or legal penalty. As the veteran studio lawyer told me, “This is the time when things like this show up in envelopes in the mailboxes of people like you. As my grandmother liked to say, “Any three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.’”
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