In TV, he’s a whale shark

Mark Burnett may look like the mind-bogglingly rich reality-TV producer behind CBS’ “Survivor,” but that’s because you don’t know him.

He says he longs to be a millionaire dealmaker like those on his new ABC show, “Shark Tank.” Even though he’s made a fortune cranking out programs for virtually every network on the dial, he still worries about his personal cash flow, just like the young entrepreneurs who need help on his show. Or at least he can pretend that he worries about such things, if only for the sake of framing his latest TV series as perfect for the deepest recession in 70 years.

“You and I know we’d all be hard-pressed to get a mortgage these days from a bank, let alone a business loan,” Burnett said in an interview earlier this week on a Hollywood studio lot, hours before jetting off on a red-eye to the South Pacific to oversee the start of shooting for the 20th season of “Survivor.”

If you can believe that the 49-year-old Burnett, who last month got his own star on Hollywood Boulevard, would actually need to borrow money hat in hand like a typical home buyer, he’s got a business proposal he’d like to run past you. Actually, several. “Shark Tank,” which premieres Sunday night, is just one of at least seven new shows he’s producing this year, and he also happened to be behind the year’s most notorious TV stunt, Bruno’s high-wire landing on Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards.


Based on a popular worldwide format that is owned by Sony and has run for years in Britain as “Dragons’ Den,” “Shark Tank” gives struggling entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their business ideas to a panel of five potential investors -- real estate doyenne Barbara Corcoran, infomercial king Kevin Harrington, Internet mogul Robert Herjavec, Daymond John of FUBU clothing fame and TV host Kevin O’Leary -- who then decide whether to back the projects with their own money. It’s a mix of “The Apprentice” -- another Burnett hit -- plus ABC’s old “American Inventor,” without the elimination elements of those programs. The British version has led to such notable consumer innovations as Reggae Reggae Sauce, a condiment pitched by a dreadlocked musician, and the iTeddy, a combo plush toy/media gadget.

It has taken a very long time for the format to reach American shores; the program has already been a hit in much smaller TV markets, including last year, in Afghanistan. But Burnett believes that “Shark Tank” is singularly well-suited for the U.S., home of free markets and, at least until recent months, guilt-free capitalism.

“We celebrate the Bill Gateses of the world,” the producer told visiting journalists who watched a promo clip for the show at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. “We’re not mad at Bill Gates.” As for free enterprise, “it’s only when there’s a gross abuse of it, like we’ve seen in the past year, that people get pissed off.”

The British-born Burnett certainly has no problem with free enterprise. He’s been enterprising ever since landing in the Los Angeles area in the early ‘80s, where after a series of odd jobs (including, he says, a stint as a nanny) he created the adventure contest “Eco-Challenge,” which ran on several cable networks. After his breakthroughs with “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” Burnett, who’s married to “Touched by an Angel” star Roma Downey, was the undisputed king of reality competition shows.


Since then, he’s diversified into a broad array of programming choices. To put it more plainly, he’s started slapping his name on all kinds of stuff. The second season of “Bully Beatdown” starts later this month on MTV, and earlier this week “How’d You Get So Rich?,” in which Joan Rivers tails the well-heeled and forces them to spill their money secrets (there’s that wealth theme again), premiered on TV Land. He even produces the bull-riding extravaganza “Toughest Cowboy” for Spike.

If there’s still a Burnett brand out there, it may be a little fuzzier than it was four or five years ago. But he dismissed any notion that he’s overextended. He still watches and approves every single episode of every show he produces, he said.

“Look at the quality of the shows,” Burnett said. “I’m not at all overextended . . . I’m very, very hands-on.”

It seems unlikely that any of the “sharks” on the new show have the star power of, say, “Apprentice’s” Donald Trump, but then in TV anything is possible. In Britain, “Dragons’ Den” received some criticism after some of the investors were revealed to have backed out of deals after the cameras stopped rolling. ABC admits that could happen here too.

“The lawyers on both sides need to get into the minutiae of the deals,” said Vicki Dummer, an ABC senior vice president who helps oversee reality, specials and late-night programming. “Some of the deals could fall apart.”

But that risk doesn’t seem to trouble Burnett.

“In the end, what you’re really enjoying here is the ‘aha’ moment of, ‘Wow, I wish I’d thought of that,’ ” he said.

“How many times have you been out for a beer or dinner and people are coming up with business ideas? Everybody wants to think they’ve got that great business idea.”


Later, he told the crowd of journalists that he’d love to have the same chance to weigh pitches that his investors enjoy on the show.

“I’d like to be a shark,” he said, somewhat dreamily.