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‘You’re hired!’ Reality producer Mark Burnett explains his success

Surprisingly, the executive producer of "The Apprentice" wasn't born in the boardroom, or even anywhere near it.  Mark Burnett, the creator of some of TV's most successful shows, came to America with little money and even fewer connections. In his new book, "Jump In! Adventures in Success From the Producer of TV’s Biggest Reality Hits," Burnett shares the story of how he "survived" and created
/ Source: TODAY

Surprisingly, the executive producer of "The Apprentice" wasn't born in the boardroom, or even anywhere near it.  Mark Burnett, the creator of some of TV's most successful shows, came to America with little money and even fewer connections. In his new book, "Jump In! Adventures in Success From the Producer of TV’s Biggest Reality Hits," Burnett shares the story of how he "survived" and created a cultural phenomenon. Here's an excerpt.

I pulled up to the guard gate at Universal Studios in my triple black 1969 Firebird convertible, living the Hollywood dream. I was on my way to meet with none other than Steven Spielberg. We had never met before, but I had dreamed of this day for years. Just getting this meeting had given me a temporary membership in Hollywood’s Big Boy Club — with a heavy accent on “temporary.” What I would do with that membership — whether I could turn it into an opportunity for greater success or whether I would fail to seize the moment — was up to me.

Now, my triple black Firebird is a car near and dear to my heart. I grew up in London, but the muscle-car phenomenon is distinctly American, something I saw only in the movies — something I always wished I’d been a part of but had missed out on. In fact, the only truly selfish gift I had bought myself after the success of my television shows was the Firebird. Only eleven hundred of this particular model with black exterior, black interior, and a black convertible soft top (hence “triple black”) were manufactured. I love this car. There’s nothing like putting down its roof and getting behind that wheel. Of course, it’s an old car, constantly “running a little hot.” Despite knowing it was over ninety degrees that afternoon in the San Fernando Valley, I still decided to put the roof down and drive the Firebird to my meeting with Spielberg. It felt so good as it rumbled nicely along the beach road through Malibu canyon and onto the 101 freeway, where the ocean breezes were replaced by the stifling heat of the Valley. As I drove toward Universal, the engine temperature rose a little, but all seemed well until I got off the exit and stopped at the first light. Once at a standstill, the engine coughed a little, and as the temperature dial rose quickly into the red, my anxiety rose with it. After what seemed like an eternity, the stoplight turned green. I breathed a sigh of relief as I drove on and the temperature dropped. This scenario repeated at each subsequent stoplight. Finally, I reached the guard gate at Universal Studios and gave my name.

One guard punched it into the computer while another gave my car the requisite security once-over. Well, actually it was twice over. He loved the car and asked me a hundred and one questions about this beautiful piece of “Americana,” failing to notice how the idling became more and more irregular as the engine temperature rose. I answered the questions about the wheels, the engine, and the brakes, all the while praying that the guard on the computer would hurry up before the triple black overheated.

Then, well, the triple black died.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was on my way to the most important meeting of my life. Things were supposed to go smoothly. But then, my entire career has been built on making success out of calamity — well, if not calamity, then at least chaos. Why should this day be any different?

Why, you might ask, would Steven Spielberg want to meet with me? After all, I just make reality television, and he makes some of the most important films of our time. The meeting came out of a new show I was making with Spielberg’s partner at DreamWorks Studios, Jeffrey Katzenberg. The show is called “The Contender,” and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done.

My television shows have always been about reality, but in a sort of parallel universe, a place where shipwrecking regular Americans on an island and forcing MBAs to coexist in a Manhattan loft actually seems normal. However, when filming is complete, the people in my shows return to their normal lives, stepping from my reality back into their reality. They may have changed as individuals as a result of their experience, but any greater ramifications to society are minimal. I hoped this was about to change. “The Contender” has the potential to revitalize a dying institution and give glory to a group of men who have labored in obscurity their whole lives. More than any of the other reality shows I’ve filmed, this show will blur that line between televised reality and the world itself.

And it had begun with a surprise phone call.

December 2003: Just after returning from Panama, where I’d been filming “Survivor: All-Stars,” I was collapsed from jet lag on my office couch, watching a rough cut of the show, when the phone rang. “It’s Mark,” I answered.

“Mark,” said a calm voice, “this is Jeffrey Katzenberg.”

I was floored. This was one of the biggest, most powerful names in Hollywood, responsible for Disney’s great animation hits of the 1990s — “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Little Mermaid,” to name just a few — before moving on and starting DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, where he produced “Shrek” and “Shrek 2,” the biggest-grossing animated film franchise of all time. He repeated his animation genius with “Shark Tale.”

“I’ve got an idea I’d like to discuss with you,” he said. “Is there a chance we can meet sometime soon?” Within minutes, I was on my way to his Burbank office.

At our meeting, Jeffrey was complimentary, saying he considered me the best nonfiction storyteller on television. Deeply flattered, I relaxed, comfortable that the meeting was going very well. Then he asked an odd question: “Do you like boxing?”

“I love boxing,” I immediately replied.

I wasn’t just saying that because I was talking to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Two of my cousins had fought at the national level in Britain when I was growing up. One of them, Jimmy, was a British schoolboy champion. The other, Alex, was another champion, and he boxed on television. My own dad had trained them. (Once when Jimmy broke my dad’s ribs with a punch, Dad complimented him on his technique!) Furthermore, every man who gets accepted into my former British Army Parachute Regiment has to go through a series of tests, one of which is a form of boxing with no rounds, sixteen-ounce gloves, and no pauses — literally a nonstop battle. Because it’s nonstop fighting with arms flailing, it is called “milling,” as in windmills. Anyone who has ever been in the Parachute Regiment knows what it’s like to do milling, stepping into a circle of men to fight another man. Inside that circle, getting knocked down is not held against you. It is failing to get up and continue to fight that is considered dishonorable. The army wants to see who keeps getting up off the floor. The point is to show who has the guts to go behind enemy lines. There are boxers and there are fighters, and boxers may have the technical skill to win, but fighters will keep on keeping on, doing anything to win. Any man who goes behind enemy lines needs to be a fighter.

So I know something about stepping into the ring, feeling the crash of a fist on my face. These are the moments when the bullshit stops. I remember, as a kid, watching with my family the night Muhammad Ali fought England’s Henry Cooper on television. (Everyone in the United Kingdom was on pins and needles about that fight, which ended with a rather controversial victory for Ali.) Later, when I moved to America, I watched the Sugar Ray Leonard–Roberto Duran fights, and then the Sugar Ray Leonard–Thomas Hearns battles. Back then, everyone knew about those boxing matches. They were marquee events. But these days, nobody can even name the current champ. Greedy promoters, charges of fight fixing, and boxers who are unable to capture the public’s imagination have resulted in some people calling for the sport’s banishment.

“I have many fond memories of boxing,” I told Jeffrey. “But, truthfully, I no longer care about boxing. I don’t think anyone does.”

“Exactly,” Jeffrey responded with enthusiasm. I had taken his bait. “That’s the opportunity! What better business to be in than a business about a sport that, when done honestly and openly, had stars like Muhammad Ali — the most famous sporting icon on the planet? Or Sugar Ray Leonard? How could such greatness no longer be valid?

“The problem is obvious,” he went on. “The public today thinks boxing is corrupt. So we remove the corruption by ensuring that the judges are unbiased and by treating the boxers fairly. We’ll model their deals after the movie industry, where they pay only fifteen percent to their managers, not the sixty percent boxers now pay. We’ll create a boxer’s bill of rights to make sure they get treated fairly. Equally important, the public won’t care about boxers they know nothing about: We’ll build their characters, something you know how to do. Anyone who can create a television program where unknowns like Richard Hatch, Rupert Boneham, and Omarosa become household names should certainly be able to find great boxing characters who can make the public care again about the fights.”

A lightbulb lit up above my head. The idea was raw, it was smart, and best of all, it was a chance to reinvent a sport I loved. Clearly, this new idea Jeffrey and I were discussing could do something special for boxing, and it would be a great long-term business.

“Let’s partner on this,” Jeffrey offered. I was in. “The Contender” was born.

Excerpted from "Jump In!” by Mark Burnett. Copyright ©2005. Used by permission of Random House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without the expressed written permission of the publisher.