The real star of The Apprentice.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 12 2004 6:48 PM

Mark Burnett

Saving the world one reality show at a time.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

The Apprentice, which ends its run on NBC Thursday, is a celebration of one of America's savviest tycoons. His name is Mark Burnett. Donald Trump plays the show's playboy, but it's Burnett, the executive producer and reality-TV mogul, who's the real icon. Burnett emigrated from London at 22 and has assumed the role of Hollywood's reigning Brit. He styles himself as the latest in a long line of his country's gentleman adventurers—the Allan Quatermain of network television. Burnett sees reality TV not as a vehicle for sleaze and humiliation—à la Joe Millionaire or American Idol—but as something noble and heroic. He thinks he can save the world one reality show at a time.

The sun never sets on Burnett's TV empire. Survivor, which debuted in 2000, still draws boffo ratings for CBS. The Apprentice finale this week will pull down even bigger numbers for NBC (and the reruns on CNBC). The Restaurant, Burnett's series about the Manhattan dining scene, begins a second glorious season this month. All three shows went "straight to series," which means they skipped the pilot stage and snagged multiepisode commitments from the networks—a deal reserved for top producers. Burnett claims Survivor draws $425,000 for a 30-second ad spot, the highest rate in series television.

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Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley might have been satisfied with this much success. But Burnett has greater ambitions: He wants to take his place beside the adventure gods of yore. In photographs, he's lean and tan, posing in his safari suit in front of some exotic forestscape. His memoir, Dare To Succeed (2001), is dotted with quotes from Sir Edmund Hillary and other explorers. When the contestants on the debut season of Survivor had to perform a torturous stunt—an obstacle course, say, or a long swim—Burnett would often roll up his sleeves and first perform the stunt himself. With a straight face, he calls this "method producing."

Burnett's biography oozes more machismo. He fought in the Falkland Islands War as a member of Britain's elite Army Parachute Regiment. After moving to America, he led teams of amateur adventurers on exploits straight out of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Burnett says he once brokered a truce with spear-wielding pygmies in Madagascar; on another quest, he kayaked among six-foot swells as sharks swirled below. "I heard my name associated with the Peter Pan syndrome more than once," he writes in Dare To Succeed. "But really, what's so wrong with Peter Pan? Peter Pan flies. He is a metaphor for dreams and faith."

His reality shows have taken on the contours of his personality: They celebrate ambition and pluck and have a touch of the Darwinian ethos of the British Empire. Survivor deposits castaways in remote wastelands and makes them hustle for food and shelter. The contestants on The Apprentice vie to become Donald Trump's new flunky. In Burnett's first series, Eco-Challenge, which aired on cable, he recreated the glory of the legendary transcontinental races, with contestants hiking for miles and then, say, hopping aboard a camel for the next leg.

Like all good colonialists, Burnett has a bit of a messianic streak. He believes reality TV can touch people's lives, which may put him at odds with his fellow producers. Last month, he christened a new series, Recovery, which follows an ex-CIA operative as he tries to recover abducted children. Burnett sees his show's übercop as a plausible alternative to the feds: "They're tied up with terrorism and war right now," he told Variety, "and there's only so much they can do." (The San Jose Mercury News reports that groups working on behalf of missing children are livid about the show's veil of secrecy.)

More Burnett do-gooding is on the way. In June, Fox will unveil TheCasino, a show about entrepreneurs who bought the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas and want to restore its Rat Pack vibe. The Contender, Burnett's collaboration with Sly Stallone, aims to flush the sleaze out of boxing. Burnett to Variety: "Rocky is the story of America. It's the heart and soul of this country. We're going to reinvent boxing." Reinvention, restoration, recovery. Burnett disdains the term "reality show," as if it were too small to contain his ambitions.

Only once has Burnett's vision exceeded his grasp. In 2000, he pitched a show to the networks called Destination: Mir. He declared that in the lieu of prize money, a winning contestant would be blasted into space for a holiday aboard the Russian station. "I can't think of any journey more glorious or daring," he wrote. "This was the ultimate adventure." It was also a rotten idea. The Russians scuttled the Mir station, and the world took a dim view of space tourism, so the show never made it to air.

Some might think Burnett is a bit dreamy. But in today's reality TV-world, his brand of dreaminess is in short supply. Since Survivor'sdebut, the genre has become a reliable source of humiliation: professional (American Idol), sexual (Joe Millionaire), even vertical (The Littlest Groom, a show about a dwarf bachelor). Even if Burnett's shows can feel unadventurous—Survivor often seems like a tropical ropes course; The Apprentice contestants have swashbuckled their way through Planet Hollywood—they have a purity of spirit that his competitors can't match. Amidst the didgeridoo music and faux-dramatic lighting, you think, "The guy really believes this stuff."

But Burnett's greatest public service may be deflating Donald Trump. The Donald is basking in the glow of The Apprentice, weeding out young associates with his "You're fired!" catchphrase. But to Burnett, Trump is merely the latest interchangeable reality star—like Richard Hatch, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and Rocco DiSpirito before him. (Trump went looking for a cog in his empire and became a cog in someone else's.) Burnett will soon leave the boardroom for more glorious adventures. "I needed to be in the bush," he once wrote, sounding very much the Victorian adventurer. "There I find solitude and beauty and purity and focus. That's where my heart lies."

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.