Mark Burnett Started His Career Jumping Out Of aeroplanes And Transporting Prisoners On Ships

Mark Burnett

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Mark Burnett is, financially speaking, perhaps the most successful television producer today. While I had launched America’s Most Wanted and COPS a decade earlier, Mark exploded onto network television with Survivor, the glossy and fantastical innovation to reality television.With Survivor now entering its 11th year, I recently interviewed Mark at the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, where the podcast will be made available. Below, Mark’s 10 steps from soldier-to-nanny-to-premiere-Hollywood-producer. 

I grew up in East London. Dagenham. My father worked at Ford Motor company for 30 years, much of it on the night shift. In my teens, I joined the Parachute Regiment. I jumped out of lots of aeroplanes, as much as the Government budget would allow us to. I did two active tours of duty: Northern Ireland, and then the Falklands war.

What really came out of it for me was after the battles. I was allowed to go on a transport ship with my guys, repatriating thousands of Argentinian prisoners to Uruguay. Both sides had lost a lot of friends. And I got on the ship expecting to feel like I’d want to throw the prisoners overboard.  Much to my surprise, they were conscripts who never really wanted to fight. Over the journey, we all actually became friends and bonded. Our emotions went from “I want to kill you,” to “Let’s stay in touch.” I learned firsthand that there would simply be no wars if people engaged in real conversation. I remember small details like getting them oranges and being thanked for that. And in fact, we did correspond over the years.

The underlying values while on-ship transporting prisoners were, in fact, the core values of Survivor. As a social experiment, I believed you could take people from varied backgrounds…socio-economic, racial, sexual orientation…put them on an island, and all the barriers would disappear, just as the prejudices disappeared on my Falkland ship. I learned this from the war. 

I had just finished with the Parachute Regiment, and I was trying to find employment There was an opportunity for “military work” from America in Central America. Contracts for military advisers. I ended up not doing it, due to conversations with my mother. At Heathrow airport, as I was leaving to get military work, she made me promise: No weapons, Mark. So, I kept my promise.

I had a couple hundred bucks and no return ticket. I promised my mum not to do anything with guns. But I needed food, and I needed money. I wanted to be a chauffeur like my friend, Nick, but there were no chauffeur jobs available. So I found a nanny/child care position in Beverly Hills taking care of a 3-year-old and a 17-year-old. They had a large, wealthy house. I learned that I liked the way rich people lived. I learned that they were not smarter than me. 

In Europe and Australia, there is something called the Tall Poppy Syndrome: People like to cut the tall poppies. They don’t want you to succeed, and they cut you down—especially people from your own social class. Californians wanted other people to succeed, and were highly encouraging of me. Americans are giving and trusting, and don’t want you to fail. I love that about America.

It was a great revelation for me to learn I could actually sell. I was extremely nervous and shy, but I sold T-shirts on Venice Beach. I needed to earn money. I also went into the banking/credit card business offering credit cards to immigrants. As an immigrant myself, I knew how hard it is to get credit in the United States. It is important to learn to stick your neck out for yourself when you need to. And that was a good lesson.

I was taking various Tony Robbins courses. He said something that made sense to me: “Stop working for a living, and start designing your life.” My mother had terminal cancer, so mortality was on my mind and life came into focus for me. I knew I wanted Adventure, Entertainment, and I wanted to make a lot of Money.

There was this existing Raid Gauloises race. Without really knowing the terminology, I created my own television barter arrangement. I brought in sponsors to the event. I brought in KCAL and ESPN. At the time, I did not know how to make television, but it was recognising my “needs basis” that shaped my agenda. I eventually bought the rights to the French competition. It was really fun…just like the Parachute Regiment, but not in a war zone. I made profits on the first year. I was off and running.

After three Raid Gauloises, I transformed the concept into a show called Eco Challenge, and was shooting it in Utah. Everything was ready to go. Good Morning America. Dateline NBC. MTV. 20-five journalists covering the event. We were four days before the race was to start, I still didn’t have a decision on a lawsuit trying to prevent the race. It had gone all the way up to the Supreme Court of Land Management. I was in debt—with a thousand people involved in the production, and the race simply on hold awaiting a judicial review. The walls were about to collapse. It was a bad moment. I remember going to my hotel room, closing my door, and going to sleep. One of my producers, Mike Sears, came knocking on my door asking how I could possibly go to sleep with a thousand people just waiting around in limbo. I told Mike: “I tried my best, and in good faith. If all goes wrong, I guess I will be bankrupt, and I will return to England.” The next day, the permits were approved and the race went ahead. I knew that once you’ve done your very best there is no point in worrying.

Some of my focus for the future involves faith based projects. I am married to Roma Downey and am very much in love. Life is good.

Via MARK BURNETT on How to Become the Biggest Producer in Prime Time Television on