Mark Burnett on Plans for MGM TV and Faith-Focused Digital Channel

Mark Burnett - S 2015
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

The mogul and newly named president of TV and digital, along with wife Roma Downey (who will become president of MGM’s faith and family division), reveals why they took on the roles.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In a transaction involving complex stock swaps and buybacks, MGM said Dec. 14 it is restructuring its TV business to be run by Mark Burnett, the reality TV pioneer behind such hits as Survivor, The Apprentice, Shark Tank and The Voice and the driving force — along with wife Roma Downey — of The Bible miniseries and other faith-based programming.

The deal has Hearst Corp. selling to MGM for $113.5 million its 22 percent stake in United Artists Media Group, the label that was revived in part to house MGM's television assets. (MGM already owns 55 percent of that entity.) At the same time, Burnett and Downey are trading their 23 percent stake in UAMG for an ownership position in MGM.

When the deal closes early in 2016, UAMG will be absorbed by MGM Television and Digital Group and Burnett will become its president, answering to MGM chief executive Gary Barber.

MGM, one of Hollywood's storied film studios, has ramped up its television unit in recent years. Hits on the air include FX's Fargo and MTV's Teen Wolf, both based on properties in MGM's vast film library.

Besides consolidating MGM's TV business into a renamed entity under the leadership of one of the industry's most successful producers, the transaction serves an additional purpose: It will kick-start plans for an over-the-top digital channel aimed at churchgoing Americans, an audience of anywhere between 60 million and 150 million.

Through such faith-driven projects as The Bible (History), A.D. (NBC) and The Dovekeepers (CBS), Burnett and Downey have become players in the scripted space. (They also worked with MGM as producers of the upcoming Ben-Hur remake.) In the new TV structure, Downey will become president of LightWorkers Media, the faith and family division of MGM Television and Digital Group, and she will serve as chief content officer of the OTT channel, which probably will be dubbed LightWorkers and could launch before the end of 2016, Burnett tells THR. The OTT channel will be owned by Downey, Burnett, MGM and Hearst. (They declined to disclose the percentage breakdown.)

Burnett says the digital channel is seeking prospective executives. In addition to developing original programming, he would like to collect nonexclusive rights to 100,000 episodes of shows including Touched by an Angel and Little House on the Prairie that appeal to the faith-based audience. He also says the OTT channel will have a strong social compo­nent to it, so subscribers can chat and share news, links, photographs and more with one another, and they can inform the channel's leadership of the shows that they would like to see licensed.

"This should be a two-way street. We want to provide a sense of belonging," says Burnett. "We're very aware of the responsibility we have to serve this enormous audience."