Burnett, arguably the most advertiser-friendly producer working in Hollywood today, will have a lot riding on the next few months. Not only is he prepping for the seventh and eight seasons of "Survivor," but he is busy collaborating with Jeff Zucker on two reality projects for NBC, "The Restaurant" and "The Apprentice" with Donald Trump.
At the height of Upfront week, he sat down with Hank Kim to discuss the future of television and advertising.
MV: Why will "The Restaurant" and "The Apprentice" resonate?
MB: I'm a street-smart entrepreneur who didn't go to college and started in business selling T-shirts on Venice Beach. I've always liked the idea of who does better, the Harvard MBA or the street-smart guy. I've known Donald Trump and have read all his books; I think he's an incredible, colorful businessman. Trump is also media savvy and I see him giving great one-take sound bites. My reason for getting involved with "The Restaurant" in large part has to do with my interest in exploring new financing models. Magna Global Entertainment brought in American Express, Coors, and Mitsubishi to pay the license fee and fund the TV production whereby there is minimal risk to NBC.
MV: There seems to be a great deal of ambivalence about reality in the marketplace. How will it shake out over the long term?
MB: Forget whether it's reality or not. Is it good TV or bad TV? Unscripted dramas are being held to the same high standards as dramas and comedies. The good news is that advertisers have shown they want good television, not the stuff that is salacious and lowest common denominator. Any thing that turns off viewers like "Are You Hot"[on ABC]—done by my good friend Mike Fleiss, a great producer—, you won't see much more of that.
MV:You recently partnered with the folks at Carsey Werner Mandabach on "Are We There Yet?", a scripted TV pilot for The WB. Are you just testing the waters or are you committed to making scripted shows a higher priority?
MB: We are absolutely committed to dramas, comedies, and features. Finding the correct writers to execute our ideas is our next focus…Expect at the next upfront to see a couple of our scripted shows on network schedules.
MV: What is the key to effective product integration in reality TV?
MB: These days with TiVo and remote control, it is more critical than ever that advertisers get associative value—direct and implied. With"Survivor"…I sold the concept to advertisers by explaining how much sense it would make for someone on an island a million miles from home to crave a soft drink or something to eat from home…it was like "Gilligan's Island." It's worked in movies forever; these products are a part of our lives.
MV: What are the challenges in achieving successful product integration in the scripted realm?
MB: It's going to happen. While "Are We There Yet?" didn't make it onto WB's line-up, it will get on the air because I'm tenacious. What's funnier than a family from the Midwest driving around Europe in a car, sick of the local food, turning to an American fast food restaurant…Maybe some scripted writers want purity in their craft and aren't business people. I'm unusual in that I'm a creative producer who is very advertiser-friendly. I've never understood why there has to be a separation between the advertising community and the creative television community. Because who are the most creative people in the world but the people who tell whole stories in 30 seconds and sell billions of dollars in product.
MV: As you develop more and more scripted shows, how will you get showrunners and writers on board in working cooperatively with brands?
MB: I've already got that with "Are We There Yet?" I worked with the writers from "3rd Rock From the Sun" and they are brilliant and totally got it and immediately started writing around that. There is no question that it will happen in the same way that there was no question that Americans should build railroads to the West or man should go into space. How could it not happen when there's gonna be 500 channels of television, TiVo, and the entire business model of the networks is built around the advertising dollar?
%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% MV: What would you say, however, if an advertiser wanted to actually put a creative director from one of its ad agencies at the development table?
MB: I get some of my best ideas from [production assistants] , the receptionist. An incredibly smart ad person coming to help would be great. Who cares? What's important is that every Thursday at 8:00, I beat "Friends."
MV: Is it far-fetched to imagine A-list producers like yourself reaping more of the advertising revenue from the networks as a reward for delivering hits?
MB: We're very well rewarded for our work and there are a number of ways to be paid fairly for excellence. I don't view it as we'll do the creative job over here and then the network goes out and deals solely with the advertising. We've worked well as a team with CBS…We don't demand a share of advertising. It doesn't matter whether you get ratings bonuses or whether you take a share of the ad revenue after costs. Certainly making a small part of a large number versus a big part of nothing makes perfect sense. The way we look at it is, we're willing to make most of our money on success.
MV: Will advertisers demand backend participation for bringing money to the development table?
MB: I've got no idea what the advertisers will do regarding that. Anything's possible.
MV: So you haven't heard any of your Madison Avenue friends floating that idea?
MB: I didn't say that, I'm just not talking about it.