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'Far worse' comments? Pressure grows on TV execs to release unedited 'Apprentice' tapes

Los Angeles Times

Mark Burnett, the prolific producer behind “The Apprentice,” “Survivor” and “Shark Tank,” is discovering what it means to be on the harsher side of reality.

Within hours of the leak of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump making lewd comments about women, reports began emerging that other explosive footage existed: specifically on the pre-edited tapes of “The Apprentice,” the reality show that Burnett created and Trump starred in for 14 seasons. 

Burnett, who made a fortune selling his production company to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, found himself in the middle of an increasingly nasty political controversy after a former show producer, Bill Pruitt, tweeted Saturday that there “are far worse” offensive comments made by Trump during the taping of “The Apprentice.”

Cameras were rolling during hundreds of hours of so-called boardroom conversations on a TV show set built at Trump Tower in New York.

“Mark kept all of that on a server, so if anyone had it, it would be Mark,” said another former employee who didn’t want to be named.

Calls grew over the weekend for the release of the unedited tapes, prompting Burnett and MGM to finally break their silence Monday — but what they said is unlikely to quell the uproar. 

“Mark Burnett does not have the ability nor the right to release footage or other material from ‘The Apprentice,’ ” Burnett and MGM said in a statement. “Various contractual and legal requirements also restrict MGM’s ability to release such material.” 

NBC, which aired “The Apprentice” and increasingly finds itself entangled in the bitter presidential campaign, also deflected requests for the material, saying it did not keep the outtakes from the show’s boardroom scenes.

MGM also rejected as “unequivocally false” reports that Burnett had threatened former employees with a $5-million penalty for violating a nondisclosure clause should they release any outtakes. It also sought to distance Burnett, who now runs MGM’s television operations, from the Republican nominee, saying that Burnett had “consistently supported Democratic campaigns.”

But Trump critics, including the campaign officials for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, remained adamant.

“Voters deserve to know the full extent of Donald Trump’s misogyny, divisiveness, and lack of temperament. I cannot fathom why people would sit on it,” Brian Fallon,  Clinton’s national press secretary,  said in calling on MGM to release Trump outtakes.

The possibility of more tapes with troubling comments by Trump put not just Burnett and MGM in the spotlight but also focused new attention on NBCUniversal, which has frequently been criticized for going easy on Trump, a personality that the network helped create by airing his show.

The initial Trump tape also was connected to NBC. He was riding in an NBC “Access Hollywood” bus around the network’s former studio lot in Burbank with  Billy Bush, who could be heard chortling and egging on Trump as he made lewd comments about women. Bush, then a co-host of the NBC-owned entertainment news magazine show, recently joined the network’s  “Today” show and was suspended after the tape emerged.

The drama has put Burnett, MGM and NBC in an uncomfortable position.

“It’s a moral decision, not a business decision,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management Inc., speaking on whether they should release the outtakes. 

“It would probably enhance [Burnett’s production company’s] reputation as a moral company,” Bernstein said. “But at the same time … if people think [Burnett and MGM] can’t be trusted with keeping confidential information confidential, then why would they do business with them?”

Burnett’s rise to fame and fortune rivals almost any in Hollywood. Born in London, he moved to the United States in the 1980s and worked several odd jobs, including hawking T-shirts on Venice Beach and serving as a nanny, before he hit it big in television with the 2000 launch of “Survivor” on CBS. (“The Apprentice,” which featured Trump rating the abilities of contestants before deciding who to dispatch with his signature line “You’re fired,” debuted in 2004.) 

In 2014, MGM paid a reported $344 million to buy a 55% stake in his company, Mark Burnett Productions, to bolster its television slate. Late last year, MGM acquired the remaining stake for $234 million and hired Burnett as its head of television. 

Burnett continues to serve as an executive producer of NBC’s “The Voice” as well as an upcoming installment of “Celebrity Apprentice” featuring former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stepped in to replace Trump after he entered the race for president.

The firestorm comes after Burnett, 56, carved out another lucrative niche as a Christian programmer. Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey of “Touched by an Angel” fame, have found success producing religious-themed TV shows and movies as “The Dovekeepers” and “The Bible.”  

Burnett’s role in giving Trump a prime-time TV platform hasn’t gone unnoticed in Hollywood. Last month, ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel kidded Burnett while hosting the the annual Emmy Awards ceremony.

“Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore because we’re living in one,” Kimmel quipped as the camera trained on Burnett smiling awkwardly. Then, after Burnett won an Emmy for the singing competition TV show “The Voice,” which runs on NBC, Kimmel joked, “That Emmy is going on the hood of Trump’s limousine!”

When asked later in the press room, about Kimmel’s ribbing, Burnett said he wanted to be a good sport.

“I’m sure Donald is thrilled, I bet you he’s emailing Jimmy now! … How much free media can any one person get?” Burnett told reporters. “I think it’s an example really about how everything is changing, whether it’s big business or politics.”

For NBC, its relationship with Trump has been particularly fraught. NBC owns one of the nation’s premier news outlets, NBC News, which prides itself on strong journalism. But over the years, NBC has raked in millions of dollars in profit from its partnership with Trump. 

After all, it was “The Apprentice” that reversed NBC Entertainment’s financial and ratings nosedive when the show went on the air in 2004. At the time, NBC was looking for new hits to replace such beloved shows as “Friends.” Former NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker (who now runs CNN) boasted that he refused to let Burnett leave the building after pitching the reality TV show featuring Trump until the network had a signed deal for the rights to air it.

“ ‘The Apprentice’ made [Trump] look like a successful business mogul and a guy who speaks his mind and says ‘You’re fired.’ ” Judy Muller, a USC journalism professor and former correspondent for ABC News, said in an interview. “This image and brand was created by that show.”

Though Trump’s relationship with Burnett and NBC was beneficial for everyone, things got testy in 2011 when Trump flirted with a presidential run in hopes of taking on President Obama. At that time, NBC presented Trump with an ultimatum, according to people involved with the incident: either he drop his political aspirations or he would lose his gig on “The Apprentice.” Trump chose to stay on “The Apprentice” and made the announcement to a hotel ballroom packed with advertisers. 

“I will not be running for president, as much as I’d like to,” he said. 

Trump continued on NBC even as he claimed that Obama was born in Kenya, becoming a leader in the “birther” movement. 

Last year, after Trump announced that he would indeed run for president in 2016, NBC said it had cut business ties with him over his disparaging comments about Mexicans. But a few months later, Trump was back on NBC in a prominent role as the host of “Saturday Night Live.” After the November appearance, NBC stations granted equal airtime to lesser-known Republican candidates.

Asked about Trump’s “SNL” appearance earlier this year, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt told an audience of television critics: “If we were in the business of never having anyone guest on the network that had views that disagreed with our views, we would be out of business.  Whether we agree with him or not, he is in a very visible position in our electoral process coming up.”

This weekend, NBC came under fire from critics who said it had been sitting on the “Access Hollywood” tape, rather than expose it, in an effort to protect Trump and Bush. The Washington Post — not NBC’s news division — broke the story of the “Access Hollywood” tape after NBC executives had been considering for days how to handle the story.

Internally, NBC executives say they believe that someone within their own news division forwarded the tape to the Post reporter — perhaps out of concern that NBC would not aggressively cover the story.

“That old Shakespearean phrase, ‘hoist with his own petard,’ applies to the network,” Muller said. “NBC, which aired ‘The Apprentice,’ has created this guy in a sense.… You can’t have it both ways. If this is your creature, then you have to own it.

“And now that he’s running for president and playing off that brand, NBC is finding out that he’s said a lot of things — at least the things on that tape — that make them look bad and the people on their network look bad,” Muller said.

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