Mark Burnett Biography


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Birth Name: Mark Burnett
Born: 07/17/1960
Birth Place: Dagenham, England, GB


Born on July 17, 1960 in Dagenham, London, England, Burnett was raised by his father, Archie, and his mother, Jean, both of whom were factory workers. At 17, he enlisted in the British Army, where he became a Section Commander in the elite Parachute Regiment and was a member of the invasion force in the undeclared 1982 Falkland War. Later that year, Burnett left England to become a military advisor in Central America. But after his mother revealed her misgivings about his assignment, he wound up in Los Angels, where an old mate from England found him a job as a live-in nanny for the Jaeger family in Beverly Hills. A year later, he traveled to Malibu to take care of two boys for a different family, whose patriarch offered him a job working for an insurance company. With an old girlfriend tagging along, Burnett moved on to selling t-shirts on Venice Beach to earn his keep. After making enough money hocking beachside merchandise, he left the insurance industry and entered the credit card marketing business.

In 1991, Burnett had an epiphany after reading a Los Angeles Times article by John Markman about the Raid Gauloises - a French outdoor adventure race considered to be the world's toughest competition. Determined to not only commit to the race himself, but to bring it to United States television, Burnett - a certified scuba diver and A-level skydiver - joined the competition with four friends, naming his team American Pride. Though failing to win, Burnett came away with a better understanding of how to bring a similar kind of race to the small screen. After forming Eco-Challenge Lifestyle's Inc., Burnett, along with former New York investment banker, Brian Terkelsen, introduced a new adventure series, "Eco-Challenge" (MTV, 1995), to the airwaves. Depicting a series of extreme sporting events spanning a 300-mile course with a five-person team that consisted of both men and women, the documentary-esque special portrayed the challenges of events like canoeing, mountaineering, scuba diving and hiking while interspersing each segment with personal tales of victory and defeat. With unfettered confidence and a touch of self-described naïveté, Burnett had unknowingly launched a completely new era of television programming.

First taking place in Utah, Burnett's "Eco-Challege" quickly became a phenomenon and branched out to Morocco, Patagonia, British Columbia and Australia. Realizing that he had tapped into an undiscovered market, Burnett used his newfound capital and produced one of the first and most successful primetime reality shows, "Survivor" (CBS, 1999- ). Pitting 16 contestants against each other in some remote location - Borneo, Guatemala, Kenya, The Amazon and Micronesia, to name a few - the show awarded the survivor of the physically and mentally rigorous 39-day competition a cash prize of $1 million. The show was a huge and immediate hit its first season, grabbing an average of 28 million viewers per episode, while over 51 million watched notorious contestant Richard Hatch win the first-ever competition during the season finale. Of course, a show that pitted a group of diverse people against each other in dangerous locations was not without its controversies, namely being sued by former contestants for unfair treatment or accused by observers for lacking diversity. Regardless of such bumps in the road, "Survivor" remained a top ratings getter after almost singlehandedly resurrecting a once-flagging CBS.

Hot off the heels of "Survivor," Burnett had a hot hand and went on to produce several more reality series to varying degrees of success, including "The Restaurant" (NBC, 2003-04), which followed the rise and fall of a Manhattan eatery run by chef Rocco DiSpirito; "Boarding House: North Shore" (The WB, 2002-03), which documented the lives of several renowned surfers who live together while competing in the Vans Triple Crown of surfing; and "Combat Missions" (USA Network, 2002), which pitted teams of highly-trained military and police personnel in various simulated combat and rescue mission. Though all three series failed to match the success of "Survivor," Burnett managed to find a huge hit with "The Apprentice" (NBC, 2003- ), which pitted a group of wannabe corporate moguls against each other for a $250,000-a-year job running one of Donald Trump's companies. Each episode began with two teams contesting against each other in specific business tasks and ended in The Donald's boardroom where a member of the losing team was summarily fired. The show was a big hit its first season, as Trump's tagline, "You're fired," was logged into the cultural lexicon.

Burnett continued the reality craze with "The Casino" (Fox, 2004), an inside look at a Las Vegas casino starring entrepreneurs Tim Breitling and Tom Poster, two Internet movers-and-shakers who acquired the Golden Nugget. The series focused beyond the doings of the two businessmen to explore the personal dramas of guests and the casino's 3,000 employees. Unable to attract an audience, the show was canceled after three months. Even less successful was "Commando Nanny" (The WB, 2004), a sitcom based on Burnett's early life experiences that was axed before its scheduled airdate, due to behind the scenes problems over health issues with stars Philip Winchester and Gerald McRaney. Returning to his bread-and butter, he produced "The Contender" (NBC, 2005 - ), a reality series that gave 16 amateur prize fighters the chance to fight their way to a final match and $1 million purse, with the winner receiving a shot at boxing in a startup league. Meanwhile, Burnett sought to capitalize on the hysteria surrounding Martha Stewart and her criminal shenanigans with two new shows: "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" (NBC, 2005), a spin-off of Trump's show that offered challengers a job at Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and "Martha" (syndicated/Hallmark Channel, 2005- ), a series where the homemaking maven offered advice to a live audience. While Martha's "Apprentice" failed to survive after its first season much to Trump's public delight, her talk show remained on the air into the next decade.

Perhaps trying to horn in on the success of "American Idol," Burnett produced "Rock Star" (CBS, 2005-06), which attempted to find the next great rock-n- roll singer to head a popular band. After two seasons, the show sputtered off the air. But true to fashion, Burnett followed up disappointment with another hit; this time striking gold with "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" (Fox, 2007-09), a game show that pitted adult contestants against a panel of fifth graders where both are asked grade school-level questions. Though only on the air in the U.S. for three seasons, the show was replicated in several countries across the world. Following the reality series "Pirate Master" (CBS, 2007), which followed 16 modern day pirates on a quest for gold, Burnett partnered with Steven Spielberg for "On the Lot" (Fox, 2007), which saw 16 would-be film directors engage in an elimination-style competition while presenting a short film every week to a panel of judges (Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall and Jon Avnet). Though praised by some critics for bringing a degree of quality to reality television, the show failed to attract a wide audience, leading to its cancelation after season one.

After another failed game show "Amne$ia (NBC, 2008), Burnett tapped into the heartland market with "Toughest Cowboy" (Spike TV/Fox Sports Network, 2007- ), a competition series that saw 12 rodeo riders trying to grab hold of the Toughest Cowboy Championship while winning a new ranch. He went on to produce a number of largely low-rated reality series, including "Shark Tank" (ABC, 2009- ), which starred five multi-millionaire business tycoons who hear business pitches from aspiring entrepreneurs in the hopes of them investing their money in the proposals. With "Survivor" going strong and "The Apprentice" perhaps outliving its usefulness, Burnett attached his name to another high-profile project, "Sarah Palin's Alaska" (TLC, 2010- ), which followed the former governor around her home state, as she participated in a different job every week - an irony not lost on her critics since she quit her governorship in 2009.