Mark Burnett: ‘I Have Never Been a Supporter of Donald Trump’s Candidacy’

Cynthia Littleton
Variety

The Apprentice” creator Mark Burnett has issued an unequivocal statement disavowing the “hatred, division and misogyny” that has become associated with the presidential campaign of his former “Apprentice” star Donald Trump.

The declaration comes amid calls in media and political circles for Burnett to release any damaging video or audio recordings of Trump, the Republican nominee for president, during his 11 years as frontman for the NBC reality show. The clamor for “Apprentice” material was stirred up following Friday’s explosive revelation of a vulgar conversation between Trump and “Access Hollywood” anchor Billy Bush back in 2005 in which Trump bragged of forcing himself on women, among other remarks widely deemed offensive.

As the creator and exec producer of “Apprentice,” Burnett played a huge part in Trump’s rise to prominence on a national scale as a reality TV star, who fronted 14 cycles of “Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” from 2004-2015. But Burnett has stayed silent on Trump’s political career since he launched his bid for the White House in June 2015.

A native of Britain, Burnett has been a strong supporter of Democrats in recent years, particularly of President Obama’s White House campaigns. The reality TV mogul and his wife, actress-producer Roma Downey, have been rattled by the storm of media attention directed at Burnett as journalists hunt for more damning evidence of sexist and otherwise disturbing behavior demonstrated during Trump’s TV career.

A report during the weekend, amid the extraordinary political fallout from Trump’s 2005 conversation, that Burnett was a “Trump-backer” was the final straw for the producer, who is now president of MGM Television and Digital Group.

“Given all of the false media reports, I feel compelled to clarify a few points. I am not now and have never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy. I am NOT “Pro-Trump,” Burnett said in a statement emailed by his personal PR rep. “Further, my wife and I reject the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign.”

MGM, which now owns the “Apprentice” archive after buying out Burnett’s company in 2015, maintains that it does not have the legal right to release footage from the show at will. MGM separately issued statement from its outside counsel, Marvin S. Putnam of Latham & Watkins.

“MGM, not Mark Burnett, owns ‘The Apprentice.’ MGM has agreements with artists across a wide spectrum of creative properties, including ‘The Apprentice.’ These agreements typically contain provisions related to confidentiality and artist’s rights,” Putnam said. “MGM has every intention of complying with its agreements with artists and honoring their rights, including with respect to ‘The Apprentice.’ ”

The legal thicket around the use of “Apprentice” material is further complicated by the fact that Trump also has an ownership interest in the show. Moreover, the archive likely includes thousands of hours of footage from 14 seasons, making it prohibitive for MGM to divulge all of it in one fell swoop, even if the studio had the legal authority to do so.

MGM is constrained from releasing any “Apprentice” material beyond finished episodes because it does not have so-called name and likeness rights for the people featured in that footage, Trump included. That means that even if Trump himself wanted certain footage released, he’d have to engage in negotiations with others who were on camera, or blur out their likenesses.

In setting a deal for a TV show, the principle players grant the studio rights to use their name and likeness in material assembled for finished episodes and limited additional uses for marketing and publicity materials. The standard contracts do not cover unfettered rights to outtakes — which is why it can be challenging for producers to create a blooper or outtake reel for a TV special or DVD release. All of those rights have to be negotiated separately.

Sources close to the situation noted that the voluminous “Apprentice” archive would be hard to search because it is not cataloged to track incendiary or controversial statements from Trump. Because the show is more than a decade old, the archives are not digitally searchable. Contemporary shows often marry the footage library with digital transcripts of all dialogue captured by the cameras — but that was not standard operating procedure in 2004 when “Apprentice” began.

Burnett is the latest to be caught up in the maelstrom created by Friday’s release by the Washington Post of the recording of Trump and Bush bantering in crude terms about women. Trump has apologized but also has tried to downplay the severity of his remarks, calling them “locker-room talk.” During the weekend, Republican leaders in droves abandoned their support for Trump’s candidacy. Even Trump’s vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has distanced himself from the candidate, leading to speculation Pence may bolt the ticket entirely.

The revelation has caused an abrupt reversal of fortune for Bush at NBC, where is in the midst of being let go (albeit with a contract settlement) barely two months after he left “Access Hollywood” for the high-profile perch as a member of the 9 a.m. anchor team on “Today.”

Just five days ago, NBC was grooming Bush for bigger and better things down the road. But the tidal wave of outrage stirred by Bush’s jokey affirmation of Trump’s remarks made it impossible for him to return to work on “Today.” Of all the frat-boy comments made during the roughly two and a half minute “Access Hollywood” outtake, nothing has sparked more fury and disdain than Trump’s braggy assertion that women are so bowled over by his stardom that he’s able to “grab them by the pussy.”

Burnett had hoped to stay out of the political fray of Trump’s polarizing campaign, but the accusations that he was somehow protecting Trump by not disclosing “Apprentice” footage became too much for him to bear. The producer is known to have rejected a lucrative offer from the Republican National Committee to produce its nominating convention for Trump that was held in July in Cleveland.

Burnett and Downey are prominent in Hollywood philanthropy circles, and both are deeply committed to their Christian faith. The two have been among the industry’s most vocal champions of fundraising to aid Christians facing increasing threats of harm from ISIS and other terrorist orgs in the Middle East.

The furor around Trump appears to be only increasing as the New York Times on Wednesday evening spoke to two women who assert that they were touched inappropriately by the candidate, a challenge to his statement in Sunday’s presidential debate that he has never groped women despite his 2005 trash-talk session with Bush.

(Pictured: Donald Trump and Mark Burnett in the early years of “The Apprentice”)

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