Hearst and the producer of such popular reality shows as "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" on Monday announced a 50/50 joint venture that will charge Burnett with the task of creating television shows for the media giant. Hearst owns more than two dozen TV stations along with stakes in cable TV networks Lifetime, A&E, History Channel and ESPN as well as newspapers and magazines.
"We were not looking to be in the television production business," Scott Sassa, president of Hearst Entertainment & Syndication, said in an interview. "But no one is sure how technology will play out or what devices will ultimately win. The one thing that is certain is good content will continue to be critically important no matter what's the screen."
Burnett's existing television productions — with the exception of his two biggest hits, "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" — will be folded into the unnamed venture, including his latest high-stakes bet, "The Voice," a competitive singing talent show that debuts on NBC later this month. Financial terms were not disclosed.
The British-born producer had been trying to sell his company for several years, particularly as he struggled to develop a new blockbuster hit. Unlike successful dramas and comedies, which earn millions of dollars of profits in reruns, reality shows have little financial life beyond their initial TV airings. Thus, reality show producers constantly try to come up with the next big hit.
"I'm not exactly missing any meals," said Burnett, who at times has been one of the highest-paid producers in television. "Strategically this was a good move for me because Hearst has great brands and a deep bench of experience."
Burnett plans to develop shows that are extensions of Hearst's various properties, including its magazines Good Housekeeping, Esquire and Marie Claire.
"Those could be very useful. I'm looking for that next act in my career," said Burnett, 50. "And Hearst provides a big burst of energy and the ability for me to work with new people."
In recent years, the financial upside for reality shows has been selling their format to foreign networks so they can adapt the program for local audiences. Burnett has often relied on other TV companies to sell his shows abroad, a role that Hearst is expected to fulfill on new shows.
Teaming up with Burnett makes sense, Sassa said, because the growth in television has been in the "non-fiction" side of the TV business. Cable networks such as History Channel and Bravo have achieved ratings gains with unscripted shows such as "Pawn Stars" and "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." The aim of the partnership with Burnett also is to create shows that dovetail with other Hearst projects or that can be extended to digital platforms, including the Internet, Sassa said.
Burnett has teamed up with several big names, including Martha Stewart and Sarah Palin. He recently produced "Sarah Palin's Alaska" for TLC.