Burnett has a knack for developing shows that virtually everybody can enjoy. “A show like Fifth Grader, a show like Survivor, they’re what the media people call the four quadrants: young female and male, older female and male,” explains Burnett.
When Shark Tank began its run on ABC in 2009, the prolific producer secured shows on each of the four major broadcast networks. An adaptation of the U.K. reality hit Dragon’s Den, the show follows unfinanced entrepreneurs as they pitch their business ideas to five multimillionaires. Burnett reasons, “In this economy, it’s very hard to get a business loan from the banks so, if you have a great business idea and you feel like you’re just financing away from your business dreams, maybe these five wealthy investors on our show, which are sharks, could be your last-ditch effort. It’s not an elimination show, and all of the entrepreneurs on any given show could get invested—or none of them. It’s all about the energy.”
Born in London, England, Burnett has the golden touch when it comes to adapting ideas for American audiences. “America is the foremost country in the world for entertainment products,” he asserts. “Many of the shows were not my original ideas, just my redo of them, but you have to do it with a sense of risk taking and vision and guts and feeling. It’s all a creative process. My role is an entirely creative role. I’m an artist. I want to feel I’ve got a palette to paint with and can make the best I can make any time. It doesn’t always work out, but you can try.”
Burnett increases the number of colors in his palette by encouraging everyone on staff at each show to share their ideas and opinions, empowering each person and allowing creativity to flourish. “The most important factor is an open-minded atmosphere, where it’s a safe place—a democracy. There is no one person, including me, who overrides everybody. We have very large teams on Survivor and The Apprentice, and it’s the willingness to be open-minded to other people’s ideas. Once those ideas are agreed upon, everybody’s willing to actually execute them properly.”
The hosts of his shows—Donald Trump on The Apprentice and Jeff Probst on Survivor—are viewed as key collaborators and enormous contributors to the end product of each show. “They are critical to the pivotal turns and drama on each episode,” he says. “Their collaboration is a huge part of what makes these shows so successful.”
If there ever was a question about whether Burnett himself could do the rigorous challenges on Survivor, the answer is a likely “yes.” At the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the British Army and later became a section commander of the Parachute Regiment. He fought in both Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands, where he saw many fellow soldiers lose their lives.
Perhaps it was his army experience that led him to his first successful TV shows: Eco-Challenge and Survivor. “The best thing about the parachute regimen for me was the outdoor experience,” Burnett recalls. “You could take away, ideally, all the weapons, and it was backpacks in the jungles, backpacks on the mountaintops, and it was a great outdoor experience. The raw nature strips us down to who we really are and therefore, you get great storytelling.”
While shoots may take Burnett to remote locations around the world, his production company is housed in a 35,000-square-foot building in West Los Angeles, not far from the Malibu home he shares with his wife, Touched by an Angel star Roma Downey, and their three children. Not surprisingly, Burnett and Downey hang art in their home that only exudes positive energy. “Any artwork in our home is uplifting, filled with light, angels, the sun,” he says.
Burnett is a hands-on producer—he goes on location often—which makes for a balancing act between the producer’s art and life. “I rarely go on location without my family,” he says. “I tend to have shoots in the summer. When the children were younger, I would take them to shoots often. Now, we are only able to take them in the summer when they are not in school. By far, what’s most important to me is the health and happiness of my family and time with my family, communicating with my family and trying to fulfill the responsibility of helping three children walk the right path, to be contributors to the greater good of the world.”
In order to give back, Burnett supports organizations in his local Malibu community. “But really, we try to reserve most of our giving towards Operation Smile,” he says, referring to the non-profit medical service helping children with cleft palates around the world. “Here in the United States, kids don’t have them because they’re repaired at birth. We try to focus on young children who clearly aren’t going to get fixed because there’s no money to fix them. With specialized doctors, we’ll go over there and we’ll help fund those missions.”
He is also a past board member and active supporter of the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation, with which he became involved following his time shooting Survivor in Africa. While there, he saw firsthand the enormity of pediatric AIDS. “Knowing that the rate of transmission is slowed through education and Novapreen, a very inexpensive medicine that pregnant women can take, and seeing with my own eyes the plight in Africa, I decided to take all of the Survivor and Apprentice props, sell them at auction, and donate the money to charity,” he recalls.
Burnett’s plate is overflowing with projects as he continues to work on each of his mega hits: Survivor (recently picked up for seasons 21 and 22), Celebrity Apprentice (going into its 9th season) and 160 episodes of Fifth Grader for syndication. He blasted into 2010 by helming the 36th Annual People’s Choice Awards to great success and continues to produce Martha Stewart’s long running daytime syndicated hit Martha. His 2009 cable series included StarMaker and Bully Beatdown, both on MTV, and How’d You Get So Rich? on TV Land, which starred Joan Rivers.
Burnett is already an important part of modern TV history, named in 2004 as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world. “He’s kind of the Babe Ruth of reality TV,” says longtime friend Ben Silverman, who worked with Burnett on the reality hit The Restaurant. “He’s a big, big hitter.“