Amazon will acquire MGM for $8.45 billion, the two companies announced today. In the announcement, Amazon Studios and Prime Video executive Mike Hopkins cited “the treasure trove of IP in the deep catalog that we plan to reimagine and develop together with MGM’s talented team,” and while the release focuses on the “vast catalog with more than 4,000 films,” it notes there are “17,000 TV shows—including Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Vikings—that have collectively won more than 180 Academy Awards and 100 Emmys.”
Those TV shows also include quite a few well-known and groundbreaking reality TV shows, including Survivor and The Real Housewives of Orange County. MGM also includes Epix, a premium channel that has produced some great documentary TV that no one’s seen because it’s on Epix. And MGM owns the reality TV production companies Big Fish Entertainment and Evolution Media. Even more significantly, MGM bought Survivor and Apprentice producer Mark Burnett and his production companies, and he now runs MGM’s television division. (More on Burnett’s very fraught role in a minute.)
Reality shows that MGM lists as part of its portfolio include:
- The Voice
- Shark Tank
- The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Orange County
- Vanderpump Rules
- Black Ink Crew New York and Chicago
- Love & Hip Hop Miami and New York
- The Hills: New Beginnings
- The Apprentice
- Live PD
But what exactly does MGM own, and what exactly has Amazon just purchased in terms of reality TV shows? The shows MGM owns versus the shows it produces—and thus exactly what Amazon is getting with some of these shows—is not clear to me, nor is it clear in MGM’s public materials. I am entirely sure that Amazon has not “acquired” The Real Housewives, as this tweet claimed; instead, it has acquired the production company that produces just two of the Housewives shows. (Real Housewives shows are produced by several different production companies, as Brian Moylan details in this behind-the-scenes excerpt in his new book The Housewives.)
Typically, a production company produces a show for a network, which actually owns the show—even if the show or format was the production company’s idea. In some cases, the production company or network licenses a format and produces a local version (e.g. Fox adapting South Korea’s King of Mask Singer into The Masked Singer.)
Shark Tank, for example, “is based on the Japanese Dragons’ Den format, created by Nippon Television Network Corporation” and “is produced by MGM Television in association with Sony Pictures Television,” according to ABC’s press releases for the show. The release says this about MGM Television:
MGM Television is an award-winning, leading producer and global distributor of premium content for television and digital platforms, led by Chairman of Worldwide Television Group Mark Burnett. In addition, MGM Television has distribution rights to original productions and a robust catalogue of television episodes and feature film titles including premiere entertainment franchises such as, James Bond, Rocky, Stargate and The Hobbit trilogy. Current unscripted projects include, The Voice (NBC); Survivor (CBS); Shark Tank (ABC); Beat Shazam (FOX); TKO: Total Knock Out (CBS); the upcoming series The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji for Amazon; and through its distribution entity, Orion TV Productions, the syndicated daytime courtroom series, Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court, Couples Court with The Cutlers and the upcoming Personal Injury Court. In addition, MGM owns Evolution Media, producers of The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Vanderpump Rules, Botched (E!), and The Hills: New Beginnings; and Big Fish Entertainment, producers of the Live PD franchise (A&E, Lifetime), the Black Ink Crew franchise for VH1, Hustle & Soul (WE tv), Love & Hip Hop Hollywood (VH1), How Far is Tattoo Far (MTV) and Live Rescue on A&E.
Survivor’s press releases, however, say far less: just that it is “produced by S.E.G. Holdco., LLC.” The Survivor format is owned by Banijay Group, a massive international company that also happens to own Bunim/Murray productions, creator of The Real World franchise, among other production companies. Even if MGM licenses the rights to produce Survivor from Banijay, do they own the library of 40 seasons, or does ViacomCBS?
I went looking for detail in financial reports. ViacomCBS’s 2020 annual report says it owns CBS Survivor Productions, Inc. and Survivor Productions, LLC, but doesn’t say what those do, nor does it get any more specific about the show. MGM’s 2021 Q1 filing lists revenue from reality TV productions under the heading “Television Licensing,” but in its description of the reality TV shows in its portfolio, it’s not very specific:
Our television content library includes approximately 17,000 episodes of programming, including Stargate SG-1, which was one of the longest running science fiction series in U.S. television history, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe, Vikings, Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Get Shorty, Condor, Clarice, Fame, American Gladiators, Teen Wolf and In the Heat of the Night, as well as our rights to or income from prominent unscripted shows including The Voice, Survivor, Shark Tank, Live Rescue, Eco-Challenge, Are You Smarter Than a 5 th Grader, Beat Shazam, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Hills, and other titles.
So, it either has the “rights to or income from” those reality shows. Later in the document, MGM says “We have numerous successful and enduring unscripted television shows that we are currently producing,” and lists Survivor and Shark Tank among them.
Thus, we can conclude that Amazon has acquired the producer or co-producer of shows such as Survivor, Shark Tank, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but it’s hard to know more beyond that.
Mark Burnett ‘was on vacation’ while Amazon bought MGM
Beyond the fact that MGM produces these shows, the exactly structure of its ownership and rights is unclear. Does MGM, and soon Amazon, own the archives of Survivor, for example? What about The Apprentice, as Stephen Colbert joked about on his show?
Previously, under pressure to release unaired footage from The Apprentice during the 2016 presidential campaign, MGM confirmed that “MGM owns Mark Burnett’s production company and The Apprentice is one of its properties” but added, “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.”
Amazon is acquiring is MGM Television, which is currently run by Mark Burnett, whose title is chairman of MGM’s worldwide television group. Burnett is, of course, the reality show producer who created CBS’s version of Survivor, the early reality show Eco-Challenge, and perhaps even the end of democracy.
In 2014, MGM bought 55 percent of Mark Burnett’s company for $400 million, and The Wall Street Journal reported that “The deal’s structure is complex,” and included these details:
- “MGM is investing in both One Three Media, a joint venture between Mr. Burnett and Hearst Corp. that produced unscripted shows like The Voice”
- “MGM is also acquiring interests in unscripted shows Mr. Burnett produced, such as Survivor, Shark Tank, and The Apprentice.”
Since then, however, MGM Television “has been fraught by internal turmoil after the reality super-producer was promoted to the role in mid-2018,” according to The Hollywood Reporter, which said “Burnett tended to meddle in areas in which he had no defined role and would frequently badger and criticize staffers and fellow executives. The culture led to high-level exits, threatened departures and at least one HR complaint.”
The story notes that, “As the finishing touches on the Amazon-MGM deal were being negotiated May 24, Burnett posted a video to his Instagram of a helicopter dropping him on the side of a remote mountain in Iceland, before flying away.”
THR’s Lesley Goldberg summarized those recent events this way: “The deal was completed while Mark Burnett, head of MGM Global TV, was on vacation.”
So Amazon is buying MGM and will now be producing some of my favorite reality TV shows, but what I am now most curious about is what will happen to Survivor and The Apprentice’s creator.
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