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October 4, 2015

Mark Burnett on Donald Trump, 'The Voice' & Why 'Survivor' Survives

by Joel Keller, posted May 20th 2011 2:30PM
Mark BurnettMark Burnett was in a bit of a feisty mood yesterday. It's understandable, given the combination of controversy and great ratings that have been attached to some of the reality shows he produces lately. He's got three currently on the air.

First, there's 'The Celebrity Apprentice,' which is steaming towards its live finale (Sunday, May 22, 9PM ET on NBC), with John Rich and Marlee Matlin facing off for the right to be "hired" by Donald Trump. The show has been renewed for a fifth celebrity season; Trump also recently decided not to run for President, but not without leaving months of new material for late night talk shows in his wake.

Then there's 'The Voice,' which is gaining momentum after a strong start, with the combination of talented singers and red hot judges (Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton) keeping people tuning in.

But when we spoke, we started with his most venerable show, 'Survivor,' which just ended its 22nd season on Sunday. We talked about the decision to bring back 'Redemption Island' for season 23, then moved on to a question that seemed like it would be innocent. His reaction was anything but ...

When you're 23 seasons in, how do you guys find ways to keep 'Survivor' fresh and keep people tuning in?
You're so funny with your questions. Truly, what do you think we do? Our job, 22 seasons in, is to understand the brand, understand the viewers and deliver a little bit of magic each season and keep it fresh. So it's hard to answer the question in a theoretical, academia kind of way. It's an instinctual thing. It's ... it's a bunch of people sitting around who love a show who've been on the show since day one, Season 1, the same people, and they're saying, "OK, what is the vibe?"

You should know that 'Redemption Island' had been getting discussed in various forms for three years, and thinking What's the right way to bring someone back? How would someone get a second chance because they really were very unlucky in the game? And that's where that came from. We're always thinking about what we can do, but we don't want to change that envelope, because we have such a solid fanbase.

Donald TrumpDuring this season of 'The Celebrity Apprentice,' Donald Trump has effectively kept himself in the headlines. When you look at it from your perspective, are you happy for the publicity or wishing he didn't say some of the things he's been saying?
'The Celebrity Apprentice' and my business relationship with Donald on that is very separate from Donald's personal life and his aspirations politically. I will tell you that Donald did not do it at all for publicity. Donald was very very serious and that's something I'm certain of. Certain.

You know, it was Donald's choice [whether or not to run for President] ... I knew that, based on ratings, NBC would be bringing back 'Celebrity Apprentice' as a franchise no matter what. It was the number one show in all of television at 10 o'clock this season, with the exception of a little show called 'The Voice.' So it was clearly coming back, and it was down to Donald to decide, because, based on equal access laws, Donald wouldn't be able to run for President of the United States and be on 'Celebrity Apprentice.' And clearly Donald decided, when he weighed up his family and business interests, to not do it. I'm obviously very happy, selfishly, because Donald Trump is clearly the absolute best possible host for 'Celebrity Apprentice.'

Were you at all concerned that you'd have to pull the show early if he declared his candidacy?

So he would have stuck to his promise to wait until the finale on Sunday to announce?
Yes, of course. You're asking me a real question, and truly I get ... but seriously, you don't believe for a minute that Donald would be announcing before the season ended when he had an obligation to be the host of the number one show at 10 o'clock on TV, and risk that the series would be pulled off the air? Why would anyone do that?

All I'm saying is that there was pressure coming from the media for him to announce his candidacy before the show ended.
That's journalists making up stuff to make up stories. It's not logical by any person's stretch of any imagination, and you don't believe that for a minute. Donald's a very savvy business person; he wouldn't even think of that. You can ask that as a journalist, but if I were writing this, I would be saying that "journalists speculated, but it's ridiculous." Who would really believe someone would do that? Why would someone do that? It's just making up stories to sell ink. And the logic is pointless.

For now there are no plans to do another regular 'Apprentice'?
No, they've just picked up a [fifth] season of 'Celebrity Apprentice' and I'm focused on that.

Watch some of the most memorable
Mark Burnett show moments of the season

Unlike a lot of other shows, Trump is the only person judging who stays and who goes. How would you respond to people who say that his decisions are head-scratchers, like Khloe Kardashian a couple of years ago or Star Jones this season?
It's completely Donald's choice. It's not any producer's, not any journalist's -- it's Donald, and the viewers know that. It's a subjective choice. So who's to say that one of your colleagues saying that is right? It is what it is. It really comes down to, I think, Donald's instinct of how they do in the boardroom and what's really going on. He doesn't like when there's a disloyalty thing going on, he's very into that. He doesn't like people not defending themselves, and he doesn't like them not to be good at presenting themselves. But there really are a lot of factors, and I think, quite frankly, that the unpredictable nature of Donald Trump is an important part of the series.

Was there a case where you were surprised with one of his eliminations?
Of course. Tons of times. Donald is doing what Donald thinks is right for 'The Apprentice,' and it's completely a subjective choice. Donald is a leader and Donald is going to decide what Donald thinks he should do.

When he was making the remarks about Obama's birth certificate, what was your reaction to that? Or, as you said, were you trying to keep yourself away from that stuff?
Donald Trump is outspoken, and clearly that's part of the ratings draw of 'The Apprentice.' That unpredictable nature is partly why people are watching, because you do know that Donald is making these choices in a vacuum and how he feels at that moment. I think Donald does many things like that. And there's something very dynamic about people not being overly prepared and overly sanitized, and Donald is genuinely off the cuff and dealing in the moment and there's something that makes good television about being in that moment and at that moment.

What can you tell us about the finale that fans can look for?
What I would say to you is that truly ... This will be the 11th 'Apprentice' finale, and I've never known what Donald was deciding literally until the act before. And he said to me this week, "Again, I'm completely undecided of who it is, who should win." There's something great in that. We ended up with two really, really strong finalists. [They raised] the most money ever on 'The Apprentice,' and it's a really, really hard choice. Last year there was obviously a distraction a little bit with the unfortunate illness of Bret Michaels. This year, it's completely based upon what's actually happened in the game.

'The Voice'Let's talk about 'The Voice.' What surprised me was that the blind auditions were only airing for two weeks; the original Dutch version had them for six weeks. What was the thinking behind that?
It's more of the totality of the short season that we had. We only had 13 weeks in total; we had to have the four weeks of live shows and the four weeks of battle rounds, and the only possible way to do it was to take the four hours we wanted for the blind auditions and put them into two two-hour [episodes].

It was because we started, as you remember, on April 26. Normally seasons start in January, but because we didn't start getting going on this until December, there was no way. We got this on the air I think, [in] three-and-a-half months-ish. You know my attention to quality on television ... and it looks like we prepped it for 10 months. It was just a matter of timing and getting it on the air.

If you had a full half season, what would change?
There would be more weeks of blind auditions.

That does seem to be a very compelling part of the show ...
It is, but I've got to tell you: the feedback from the battles is even bigger. And this idea that you've got two people who are both really, really good, singing together to kind of a harmonious kind of singing experience for an audience, but then they're battling at the same time, and the agony that you see in the coaches, that they are responsible for sending someone home and they really don't want to. It's emotional. So the battles are, I think, an equal if not bigger draw. So we're two battles in with two more weeks of battles, and with the four weeks of live shows, I'll tell you that when you see the scale of these live shows, it looks like a full-on awards show.

How are the live shows going to look and feel different than the 'American Idol' live shows?
Just much bigger. And these are very, very good performers singing very current songs. And the fact that they're also being mentored and coached by these superstar singers adds to the performance. You've seen that in the battles, and you'll see more of that in the live shows.

What was the key to getting Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine -- four people who are really at the top of the music business right now -- to sign on as coaches? What was the attraction to them, besides the money?
Well, the attraction was I've got relationships with them all, we've talked it through. Their number one thing is that they don't want to be involved in a show where I'm bringing on obviously bad singers and I'm asking them to make a comedy of how bad they are. Everyone's seen that, and clearly it works on other shows and we've enjoyed it, but OK, it's been done. So I reassured them that, "This show is really about music, and really about voices and ability, and I promise you you'll either find people who are very good or great." The hardest thing of all, though, was the scheduling. Because they're all at the top of their game, they're all performing all the time and doing stuff and so it was really hard to lock in the schedules.

Now onto some of your other shows. With the uncertainty over Sarah Palin running for President, are there any thoughts of doing another season of 'Sarah Palin's Alaska,' or is she done with that?
I'd love to do another adventure series of 'Sarah Palin's Alaska,' and that would all depend on Sarah's personal decision on whether she's running for office or not. Clearly it's the same issue as anybody: equal access.

'Shark Tank''Shark Tank' got picked up again for another season ...
I love that show.

Are you going to keep the same formula you had in the second season, where you brought in guest sharks like Mark Cuban and Jeff Foxworthy?
Yeah, I'd like to. I think the guest sharks are interesting; I had some fun with it, so I'd like to try that again. And as I said to ABC, I love it so much that if legally it works out, I'd love to go on and do an episode myself as a shark. It's complicated to figure out, and I'm not sure how that works, but if I could go on, I would go on, I love it so much. When we're making it and I'm there listening to these pitches, I'm thinking, "Wow, these are incredible business ideas, this is so America and I'd love to invest in those businesses." I've gotten so many calls from so many people who want to be guest sharks. So we're working on that now.

'The Celebrity Apprentice' airs Sundays at 9PM ET on NBC.

'The Voice' airs Tuesdays at 10PM ET on NBC.

'Survivor' airs Wednesdays at 8PM ET on CBS.

'Shark Tank' airs Fridays at 8PM ET on ABC.

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Dump Trump and all his shows. They are obivously rigged

May 23 2011 at 10:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
General Kenobi

A week or so ago it was posted on here that the Celebrity Apprentice finale show had been pre-taped in December. Is that not accurate?

May 21 2011 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to General Kenobi's comment

The task was pre-taped in November or December (I've heard both). The "boardroom" part, where Trump picks the winner, is live.

May 22 2011 at 11:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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