Mark Burnett on Infusing Diversity Into Dating Shows, Schwarzenegger's 'Apprentice' Appeal

As 'Coupled' debuts on Fox, the prolific producer talks about the Tinder effect on dating shows, sex on TV and a "funny" and "relevant" rebound from Trump's 'Apprentice.'
Courtesy of Michael Becker/FOX
Fox's 'Coupled'; Mark Burnett (inset)

It's easy to be overwhelmed by Mark Burnett's IMDb profile. The reality TV pioneer, who boasts top unscripted franchises (Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank and so on) across the Big Four, has seen his slate grow considerably over the years — but one thing you won't find on his résumé is a dating show.

That changes tonight, with the launch of Fox's Coupled. A Tinder-influenced spin on televised matchmaking, in which the female contestants opt to walk right (yea) or left (nay) after meeting eligible bachelors, is Burnett's play for the enduring audience of ABC's Bachelor franchise. The shows are wildly different, as Burnett recently explained to The Hollywood Reporter, starting with the men and women who make up the cast: an ethnically diverse array of professionals, none of whom have job titles like "twin" or "chicken enthusiast."

"They're not desperate," says Burnett. "Their lives don't suck if they don't meet a man on a show."

He also talked about managing his growing empire — Burnett now serves as the president of MGM TV, which includes plenty of scripted efforts — and his confidence in the post-Donald Trump era of Celebrity Apprentice. (That show returns to NBC, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the boss, in the fall.)  

Coupled has a very diverse cast, something the Bachelor franchise has gotten heat for lacking. How important was that?

It's super important. The show you mentioned has gotten a lot of flak for that. If I'm going to go out and make my first dating show, I had to look closely at all of the things that I would do differently — and there were several. I wanted to find women who are successful in their own lives. They're not desperate; their lives don't suck if they don't meet a man on a show. And the women couldn't just be chosen by some guy. The women have a choice right from the very beginning. I also wanted a host that didn't feel like a host of a dating show. When the women meet [host] Terence [Jenkins], they don't even know who he is. They assume it's the first guy. And diversity is a really big deal. Why wouldn't we have a diverse cast of men and women? We have an African-American guy in the first episode. It's a big statement, and the show feels very contemporary.

Why didn't you do any dating show before?

I've got a lot of stuff on air right now (laughs). They're on four out of five nights a week on broadcast. It just felt like the right time, and I do think that The Voice gave me confidence. A lot of people said, "How on earth is a third singing show going to work on TV?" We already had American Idol and The X-Factor. Right now, The Voice is the last one standing. It's the right timing for me. The Bachelor is going to continue, it's a great show, but there's room for another one. What matters is having a new format. All of the women can find love on this show, it's not about just one of them. Texting also plays a big role. The women in bungalows are part of the drama of the [dates] through texting. 

The women choosing to walk left or right after meeting the men is like a real-time dating app. How much did technology in dating inform the format? 

If you're doing a reality show, it's important to be reflective of the times. It's like The Voice. We were the first show to use iTunes as part of the program. People are eliminated because of instant voting on Twitter. In the case of a dating show, you have to have these nods to swiping left or swiping right. They're texting, they're sending photos and videos, because that's what's going on.

You've been vocal about your push for family-friendly, aspirational TV. Were you reluctant about putting on a show where people would probably be sleeping together?

It was a choice we made. You'll see women in this show making a statement that they're there to get to know someone and not sleep with them on TV. And there are people who sleep together. It's real life, but it's not manufactured. No one is jumping into bed, because that's not real. The viewers can tell if something is forced or not. They don't need to be spoon-fed, they can join the dots.

How has your daily involvement in your shows changed since taking on the bigger catalog at MGM Television?

I have a brand. I have an expectation, but I allow showrunners to run the shows. And the top people do not appreciate being micromanaged, so that's how we're able to make so much. Going forward with MGM right now, we're making a lot, but it's continuing my philosophy of hiring the best people and letting them do their jobs. I hire people better than me. The next phase for me is tackling new media and live. I love live, televised and non-televised, that's where I want to go.

What can you say about how the Schwarzenegger version will differ from the Trump era of Celebrity Apprentice?

Arnold is so brilliant and so funny. At the first press conference, on the eve of shooting, someone asked him, "You're a huge movie star and you were the governor of a state larger than most countries — why do reality TV?" He said that reality TV has some of the most viewership of anything in the world. Why wouldn't he? In the first episode, there's a great line where he meets all of the celebrities. He's talking about his life, and he says, "Really, I owe the most to 'Cahl-e-four-knee-uh.' And any of you who cannot correctly pronounce the word 'Cahl-e-four-knee-uh' is fired." It's great fun. We have to figure out a time slot now. Arnold has brought a breath of fresh air. It also feels so relevant to be in Silicon Beach, by the tech companies, in Los Angeles. We had a good time making it.

Coupled premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox, following Megyn Kelly's primetime special.

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