There is multitasking, and then there is multi, multi, multi—oh, never mind. Just check out TV super-producer Mark Burnett’s to-dos during one hour of a recent 18-hour day at his L.A. office:
1) Select finalists for The Apprentice 3.
2) Review dailies from the previous night’s filming of Global Frequency, his new WB drama.
3) Sign off on a final logo for Commando Nanny, his new WB sitcom (but not before insisting on tweaking the logo’s baby-block letters).
4) Handwrite thank-yous to Tony Danza and James Caan, who attended fight nights for The Contender, his now-filming boxing reality show on NBC.
5) Review notes for Recovery, his new “unscripted” kidnapping drama.
6) Take a call from his ex-wife to discuss their kids Cameron, 7, and James, 11.
So why does the British-born Burnett, 44, look relaxed? “It’s one of those jump-in things,” he says of his philosophy. “I just tend to jump in and do things, and I have great people around me to try to figure it out.” It has proved to be a very successful approach: Recently anointed “The Guy” in Hollywood by FORTUNE magazine, he’s the mastermind behind two of TV’s biggest hits, Survivor and The Apprentice (ranked No. 4—for All-Stars—and 5, respectively, in last year’s ratings race), and he is largely credited with launching the reality craze, thanks to the flagship Survivor. Now Burnett is aiming to prove just how far his talents stretch—and whether his Midas touch extends to nonreality fare—by heading up seven shows on three different networks in the coming year. “He’s building an empire, clearly,” says CBS chief Les Moonves. “He has an incredible amount on his plate, but he also has incredible energy.”
A showman given to Donald Trump- style proclamations of excellence, Burnett is not big on self-doubt. Pointing toward the dailies for Global Frequency, which features a terrorism-busting duo, he declares, “This is my Mulder and Scully. It’s going to be a hit.” Says Survivor host Jeff Probst, a pal: “His ego is enormous. But in Mark’s case, it is part of what makes him so charming. This guy is not an accident. He knows what he’s doing.”
Sylvester Stallone, who is teaming with Burnett on The Contender, describes the producer’s pluck this way: “You could drop Mark off in the Congo, naked, and in six months come back and there’ll be a fort. And well- schooled soldiers.”
And yet there are signs that the one- time paratrooper may actually be mellowing—or at least thinking about it. Credit his girlfriend of nine months, actress Roma Downey, 44. “I think my personality anchors him a little,” says the former Touched by an Angel star, who joined Burnett and his sons, along with her daughter Reilly Marie, 8, in Vanuatu during filming early this summer of the new Survivor. Also, she adds, “he’s a great dad.” Burnett, who shares custody of his sons with ex-wife Diane, tries to spend mornings cuddling with his boys in bed—even if, as he notes, “they watch all my shows, but obviously they’re not as good as SpongeBob.”
As a kid himself, Burnett was never one to slow down for long. The only child of factory workers Archie, 80, and Jean, who died in 1993, Burnett grew up in working-class Dagenham, England; he was barely out of high school when he joined the British army’s parachute regiment at 17. “I wanted to prove myself,” he says. One lesson from his combat days in the Falkland Islands: “Tenacity is more valuable than capability.”
His own tenacity brought him to L.A. in 1982, where he originally planned to seek for-hire commando- type work but ended up becoming… a nanny? (Hence the inspiration for Commando Nanny.) “I didn’t do [the combat work] because my mother had a bad feeling about it,” he says. Instead, interested in the free room and board, he tended to the children of several affluent families, giving him an up-close look at luxury living. “I realized that in America anybody could actually have that,” says Burnett, who became a U.S. citizen in 1990.
The enterprising Burnett next sought to break into TV in hopes of making waves. Inspired by foreign shows centered on real-life endurance races, he pitched a similar series called Eco-Challenge. Applying his signature business savvy, he offered to give the networks the first show for free if he could take the profits from half the commercials. It worked.
With that show under his belt, Burnett approached CBS with the pitch for Survivor in 1999. “I thought it was the stupidest thing I ever heard,” admits Moonves. But when Moonves met the driven Burnett, “he had it all worked out down to the music and every single detail. I just felt in my gut that this is a guy who can deliver.”
He did, and he repeated the feat again last year with The Apprentice. Still, there have been stumbles along the way, including The Casino and Combat Missions. And he remains untested as a producer of traditional scripted fare. Outwardly, at least, Burnett seems unfazed by the current pressures on him—and is already looking ahead to his next challenge. One dream possibility: reviving Stallone’s Rambo flicks. (“It’s a great franchise,’ he says.) He’s also launching Burnett production offices in Italy, Spain and France. “My goal is to ideally have two Survivors and two Apprentices per year, one Contender and one Rock Star [his upcoming CBS reality show with band INXS]. I’d like Commando Nanny and Global Frequency to be ongoing. And I’d like to settle in. That’ s enough.”
Or so he says. For now.
Michelle Tauber. Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles and Cynthia Wang in Vanuatu