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Mark Burnett, the reality TV titan who could hold Donald Trump’s fate in his hands, explained

The Apprentice creator probably has damning footage of Trump — but he also has no real reason to release it.

Donald Trump on The Apprentice.
Donald Trump makes his final decision in the season six finale of The Apprentice.
Matthew Imaging/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In its final month, the 2016 presidential election has taken on a very “revenge of the 2000s” feel.

To be fair, there’s always been a slight feeling of that in the run of Donald Trump, a man who built much of his political persona atop his reality TV persona. But the reveal of a 2005 tape of Trump saying horrible things about women while behind the scenes of Access Hollywood suddenly brought pop cultural ephemera more than a decade old into the spotlight.

Trump was lewd and demeaning. He seemed to be suggesting he got away with sexual assault on a regular basis. And all the while, former Access Hollywood co-host (and George W. Bush cousin!) Billy Bush chortled away.

But if there’s one thing TV professionals know, it’s that if there’s one bit of footage of someone being horrible on a hot mic, it’s only the tiniest sliver of the tip of the iceberg. And with such a long career in the public eye — and an apparent disregard for keeping his worst thoughts to himself around microphones and cameras — it’s fair to assume there’s even more out there on Trump.

And that’s why all eyes have turned to reality TV producer Mark Burnett.

Mark Burnett Productions has released the following statement regarding behind-the-scenes footage of The Apprentice:

MGM owns Mark Burnett’s production company and The Apprentice is one of its properties. Despite reports to the contrary, Mark Burnett does not have the ability nor the right to release footage or other material from The Apprentice. Various contractual and legal requirements also restrict MGM’s ability to release such material. The recent claims that Mark Burnett has threatened anyone with litigation if they were to leak such material are completely and unequivocally false. To be clear, as previously reported in the press, which Mark Burnett has confirmed, he has consistently supported Democratic campaigns.

Burnett isn’t widely known to laypeople, but he’s one of the single most important TV producers in history. He, by and large, invented competitive reality TV as we know it, and even today, he’s behind TV’s biggest reality hit, The Voice. He’s also produced a number of conservative Christian films and TV shows, even as all of his significant political donations have been to center-left Democrats.

And if anybody could completely crush Trump’s electoral hopes with a single leak, it’s probably Burnett. But — as the statement above states — you shouldn’t count on that happening.

Mark Burnett revived Donald Trump as an onscreen personality

NBC Summer TCA Tour - Day 1
Donald Trump and Mark Burnett discuss The Apprentice in the summer of 2004, after its first season had aired.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown

When The Apprentice launched in 2004, Trump wasn’t a laughingstock or anything, but the thought of him somehow mounting a credible run for president would have struck many as bizarre. Trump, at the time, was famous, but his fame had faded in the late ’90s. He was known mostly as a boastful rich guy, the dude who had had successes and failures and rode the real estate roller coaster around and around and around.

The Apprentice, in which a number of contestants competed for a job with Trump, largely changed that. While the show was never the world-dominating hit Trump bragged of it being and only spent one season in the year-end Nielsen top 10, that one season was the first season, and it became a legitimate breakout sensation. It was so big it finally tore apart NBC’s “Must See TV” comedy bloc on Thursdays, sending Scrubs, among others, scrambling for a new time slot.

It’s hard to overestimate just how big of a figure Burnett himself was when The Apprentice launched. He wasn’t the only player in reality TV — venerable franchises like American Idol and The Bachelor were airing and had nothing to do with him — but he was the guy who imported Survivor and turned it into the biggest thing on TV.

His reality shows had the slick pacing of a compulsively watchable serialized drama, but the authenticity of real people making tough decisions. Yes, most viewers knew producers were manipulating his reality shows on some level, but they felt more exciting than any scripted drama could.

And to this day, Burnett is a reality kingpin, even if he’s not as powerful as he was in 2004. Indeed, he has three separate long-running reality franchises still chugging along on three of the four major broadcast networks — The Voice on NBC, Survivor on CBS, and Shark Tank on ABC.

But it’s The Apprentice that’s drawing the most focus right now. The smartest decision Burnett made in conceiving The Apprentice was to make Trump both its hero and its villain — sort of a primordial god who decided contestants’ fates with a terrible combination of acumen and spite. The Trump presented there is shown as, simultaneously, a shrewd judge of character and business sense, while also a man who’s not afraid to go with his gut when need be.

Though The Apprentice was always sold as being the Trump show, and though the series provided for a revival of his pop culture fortunes, the show’s highest-rated seasons (its first three), tellingly, didn’t have as much Trump as what followed. Those early seasons focused heavily on the contestants, and in season one especially, a few contestants became as compelling as Trump himself. (See also: Omarosa.)

Burnett knew Trump was a spice that gave his game show a bit of flavor, but he was careful not to overdose on the man. And the more that Trump and his fits of capriciousness in the boardroom took over the show, the more its ratings slid. The seventh and final season of The Apprentice ranked 113th in the year-end Nielsens, and The Celebrity Apprentice, though a steadier performer than the original version, has never risen above 48th.

But it’s also worth noting that The Apprentice only worked with Trump. A fall 2005 attempt to do a season with Martha Stewart at the helm — to allow for two cycles of the series per TV season — boasted disastrous ratings, which only righted themselves once Trump was back in the boardroom.

Burnett has apparently put hefty fees in place for anyone who would leak behind-the-scenes footage

Donald Trump Honored With AStar On The Hollywood Walk Of Fame
Burnett attends Trump’s ceremony receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.
Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

The first rumblings that footage of Trump’s behind-the-scenes antics on The Apprentice might ruin his electoral chances came from an Associated Press report by Garance Burke, who spoke to 20 people who had worked on the show and attested to his sexist behavior in footage that hit the cutting room floor.

But in the wake of the Access Hollywood footage, even more fervor has grown up around what might be sitting in the vaults at Mark Burnett Productions, with former employees of the program hinting that what’s there could be huge.

TV producer Chris Nee, in a later deleted tweet, said she had heard from other producers on the series that Trump uses racial slurs in the worst behind-the-scenes Apprentice tapes. Nee also alleged that she has worked with Burnett before and the legal penalty for leaked footage is $5 million. (We’ll get back to this in a second.)

Before we go any further, it’s clear that there’s enough smoke here that there’s probably a fire. There is almost certainly something damaging in the massive collection of unaired Apprentice footage sitting in Burnett’s vaults. But the certainty that it will turn up — when all evidence suggests Burnett Productions will probably just sit on it — has shades of the infamous 2008 “whitey tape,” which was said to show Michelle Obama saying the word “whitey.” (Needless to say, such a tape never materialized and did not exist.)

And it’s also possible that even if there’s campaign-ending cut footage from The Apprentice sitting in Burnett’s vaults, it would be all but impossible to find. There’s a lot of cut footage from any given episode of reality TV, and finding the most damaging moments could end up being like locating a needle in a haystack. My guess is that if this footage exists, somebody at Burnett Productions has known about it for a while. However, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it does exist but no one has located it.

Finally, it’s important to point out that if this footage leaks, it will likely be because of someone at Burnett’s company, not because of someone at NBC. Mark Burnett Productions controls the raw Apprentice footage, while NBC only has access to the episodes that have aired. Maybe there are a few scraps of something in NBC’s vaults, but all eyes have turned to Burnett for a reason.

Many have read the $5 million penalty as a political statement — Burnett saying that if you get in the way of Trump’s campaign, it will cost you dearly. (This is seemingly corroborated by a BuzzFeed report that Burnett is a Trump supporter.) But if Nee’s report is correct, consider that the only Burnett production she worked on was The Casino, his 2004 reality series set behind the scenes of a casino. Trump’s presidential campaign was on nobody’s mind at the time.

Indeed, instituting a hefty penalty in a non-disclosure agreement pertaining to leaked raw footage is just good business sense for a reality TV producer. No genre of television is as dependent on the gap between perception and reality as reality TV. Raw footage that reveals how carefully producers have sculpted story and character arcs, or that displays the onscreen contestants in less than savory moments, could be fatal to the success of a series.

The real question, then, is whether Burnett will feel obligated by “newsworthiness” to make the raw footage from The Apprentice public. The Associated Press has even directly requested the footage. The statement released by Mark Burnett Productions shows that’s not going to happen.

A court order might force Burnett to open his vaults, but in that case, he could just as easily release all of the footage, leading to the needle in a haystack scenario raised above.

Trying to get a read on Burnett’s politics is tricky

Special Event For History's 'The Bible'
Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey present their miniseries The Bible. (Also pictured is Pete Hammond.)
Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for History

BuzzFeed has named Burnett as a private Trump supporter. The two worked together for years, after all, and the fate of The Apprentice (which will relaunch in 2017 with a celebrity edition and new host Arnold Schwarzenegger) is probably tied at least somewhat to the fate of Donald Trump.

But Burnett has yet to donate to Trump’s campaign. Same goes for his wife, Roma Downey (best known for playing the lead role on Touched by an Angel). And it’s not as if Burnett has never donated to a campaign before. He gave the maximum possible amount to Barack Obama in 2008, and in 2013 he even gave more than $5,000 to Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes for her challenge to Mitch McConnell. (Burnett was born in the United Kingdom but became a US citizen in 1990.)

Now, Burnett is deeply embedded in the Hollywood community, and donating money to Democrats is a thing people in Hollywood do. But neither he nor Downey has made comparable donations to Republicans.

Burnett hasn’t made any donations in 2016 so far, and that might be the best evidence of tacit Trump support. He’s not going to actively back the man’s campaign (and risk the wrath of Hollywood social circles), but he’s also not going to support Hillary Clinton or any of Trump’s Republican challengers. But as “support” goes, this is about as weak as you can get for someone who has Burnett’s wealth and clout. Just check out how uncomfortable he seems when this subject comes up at the Emmys.

Some have pointed to Burnett’s Christianity as evidence of his conservatism. And, yes, he’s said before that he believes America is built on two things: the Bible and free enterprise.

In recent years, he and Downey have shifted their focus to producing faith-based films and TV shows, aimed at the Christian audience. Some of these have been huge hits (the History Channel miniseries The Bible, and an edited version for theatrical release called Son of God), while others have been massive bombs (the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur). The pair are also listed as executive producers on a handful of small independent Christian productions, like the period drama Little Boy and the football-and-faith flick Woodlawn.

But none of the projects are explicitly political, beyond the generalized sense that more stories should have Jesus heavily featured in them. (The Bible was criticized for having a Satan who looked like Obama, but both Burnett and Downey shot that down, and their prior political donations, at least, suggest the controversy was misguided.)

Indeed, these projects exist seemingly because Burnett and Downey saw a gap in the market for explicitly Christian films, one in which they could make money by keeping budgets low and production values higher than other explicitly Christian tales (not a difficult task).

None of this is to say that Burnett isn’t a Trump supporter, nor to say that he shouldn’t release whatever footage he has. But it is to say that he can have good business reasons for not wanting to release the footage, while still privately hoping Trump loses. To me, the newsworthiness of whatever footage Burnett has trumps his artistic concerns, but I can see why he would be hesitant to send the footage out there.

Still, if there’s one thing that’s been true of Burnett throughout his career, it’s that he has a canny ability to zero in on the next thing, on the thing that will make him more money and bring him greater success longer term than whatever he’s doing at the moment. When you look at his TV successes, outside of The Voice, they’re almost always breaking new ground, rather than following others.

That, ultimately, might be what gets Burnett to release the Apprentice tapes. If he thinks there’s a financial upside for him, sure, why not. But it’s hard to see what that upside would be in a world where most people still think of The Apprentice as the Donald Trump show.

And in that world, it might take a lot more than prevailing upon Burnett’s good will to see whatever damning footage might exist.

Alissa Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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