Reality Megaproducer Mark Burnett On NBC’s “The Voice,” Donald Trump And Sarah Palin


Mark Burnett is the man behind “Survivor” — so you might say he’s the man behind reality television.

But there’s one thing Burnett (who launched “The Apprentice,” “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?”) hasn’t done: a sweeping, sparkling singing show.

Until now. Burnett’s take on Holland sensation “The Voice” premieres tonight on NBC and features a coach-centric format.

“Mentors” Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Cee-Lo Green and Adam Levine attempt to coax undiscovered talent to their respective teams. Carson Daly hosts.

Burnett spoke to The Wire by phone on the eve of the show’s premiere.

THE WIRE: “The Voice” is on the scale of “American Idol” and Simon Cowell’s “X Factor.” Even with everything you’ve done in the reality space, did you always wish you’d been the one to invent that format?

MARK BURNETT: “X Factor” I’ve never, ever seen.

TW: You’re kidding.

MB: Even though I grew up in London and my family all watch it, I’ve never watched it. “Idol” I’ve watched many times. And yes, I’ve always thought, “God, I would love to have a successful music show.”

Paul [Telegdy, Universal’s EVP of reality development] and I were noodling around for six months looking for one when he said, “check out ‘Voice of Holland.'” I went on YouTube and looked and said, “Paul, I wish we thought of this.” He said, “Yeah, me too.”

TW: On “The Voice,” it’s famous singers encouraging these unknowns, mentoring them, as you guys say — it follows on the happy tone of this year’s revamped “Idol.”

MB: Yes. Christina [Aguilera], once she understood that she wasn’t being asked to criticise people and pull them down — that’s when she said, “This could be fun.”

TW: But do you worry about this whole kumbaya trend maxing out?

MB: Well, “Idol” is very positive this year, and the ratings are up. I’m enjoying it, my kids love it. So we’re not very worried.

TW: How do you create tension and drama, though, when everything’s lovey-dovey?

MB: Oh, there’s lots of drama. It’s like the NBA draft — these coaches are assembling their rosters. They build teams of eight, and then in the battle rounds those teammates compete against each other, singing the same epic songs, [to stay on the show]. 

TW: So that element will help “The Voice” straddle the line between “Idol” positivity and what will probably be the more cutthroat tone of “The X Factor” when it comes to the U.S. this fall. How do you think having that show stateside will change the game?

MB: What show?

TW: “X Factor.” The one we were just talking about, with Simon Cowell? It’s coming to Fox.

MB: Oh, right. That’s far away. That hasn’t even crossed my mind.

TW: Something that’s very intriguing to us in media is your new agreement with Hearst — you recently set up a partnership with them. What can we expect from that?

MB: I was recently there in New York all day, and I think I’m going to fit in so well. All these writers and editors producing incredible content… you know, I’m not looking at this as just television. It’s about content.

TW: Meaning…

MB: There are screens everywhere. Who knows how we’re getting content in the future? I have three teenagers, and the other day, they’re huddled together, sharing earbuds, watching something on an iPad — while they’re in the room with a flatscreen TV. I said, “You’ve got the TV right there. Just push the button.” They’re like, “Dad, we’re busy.”

The point is — there are screens at the gas station, there are screens at the shopping mall. And they all need content.

TW: So you’re more interested in using what’s actually in Hearst publications? Or can we also expect programming or projects that feature the people in that building?

MB: All of the above. It’s a crazy world, these writers and editors, and these are great brands. It doesn’t take much to figure it out. I’m looking a lot at the fashion and beauty surrounding some of the females. And I’m a great fan of Esquire, so I’m looking at that, definitely. 

TW: Meanwhile, it’s been a great season for “Celebrity Apprentice.” Ratings are up every episode.

MB: How funny is that team this season? You know how I know [it’s good]? My wife, who could watch all the rough cuts she wants — she waits to watch it on TV. Did you see the moment when Trump asks Marlee Matlin if she likes someone’s records? And she goes, “I’m deaf.” He’s unbelievable.

TW: And this speculation about him running for president — all eyes, right now, are on him and a former subject of yours, Sarah Palin. Who would make the better president?

MB: Oh, no. I can’t — I’m just trying to focus on making the shows right now.

TW: Come on.

MB: I stay so far away from that stuff, honestly. It doesn’t enter my mind.

TW: At least tell us, then, which of them would fare better on “Survivor.”

MB: Sarah. Sarah would do better than Donald. She likes being out there in the woods.