As NBC executives pray for a ratings win, producer Mark Burnett may have just passed them a Hail Mary.
Burnett and his wife, producer-actress Roma Downey, will produce for the network A.D.: Beyond the Bible, a sequel to their hugely popular miniseries The Bible — and Burnett doesn't see it as a one-off. "There's no reason this shouldn't run 10 years," he tells TV Guide Magazine.
It won't come cheap. NBC made an aggressive bid for the sequel, knocking other contenders (including History, which aired The Bible) out of the running. But a History spokesperson says the channel passed on A.D., adding, "We're about what's next."
A.D. (which is still a working title) will begin in the days after Jesus' death as his disciples look to survive. Writing is already under way on the event, with production expected to start next year in Morocco. "It was probably one of the bloodiest times in human history," Burnett says of A.D.'s timeframe. "Just really, really scary."
Burnett spoke with TV Guide Magazine about his next big project; an edited transcript follows.
TV Guide Magazine: How and when did the idea for a sequel to The Bible come about?
Burnett: While sitting in the Moroccan desert shooting The Bible, we realized that we should do this. We've had a team working on the outlying script all along. When you think about it, the story doesn't end with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. If you think about the story, there are 11 apostles left. How do 11 guys manage to get us to 2.2 billion [Christians estimated around the world]? What's the chance of that, when any minute the Romans could have rounded them up and killed them all?
TV Guide Magazine: What are some of the storylines you'll focus on?
Burnett: Right behind this comes the Jewish revolt. And over that couple of decades, it leads on to the fall of Jerusalem. Imagine the full storylines going on at the same time. There's the dynasty of the Herods, vying for power. The temple authorities, with the zealots, vying for power. The Romans want peace, collecting taxes and leaving trade routes open. It's the most complicated region ever occupied. The stories are amazing. You know that Nero used Christians as human candles. Literally as candles. And in the coliseum they fed Christians to lions.
TV Guide Magazine: How might NBC schedule it?
Burnett: I think this will be a hugely rated series. Obviously we're far away from shooting and scheduling. But the ideal scenario would be a Sunday night, if it worked out for NBC. It could run in the same way as Game of Thrones, 12 hours year after year. I don't think for a minute that A.D. lasts for just a season.
TV Guide Magazine: What will you use as source material?
Burnett: You've got parts of the Bible. Josephus was Jewish and wrote one of the most incredible historical documents [in the first century]. There's also great archeology and a lot of writing to mine. In The Bible, from the smallest cup to the largest chariot, everything was accurate. And that's what we're going to do again.
TV Guide Magazine: You've mentioned series like The Tudors and The Borgias, both of which weave fiction and history, as inspiration. Does this mean A.D. will contain some fictional elements, perhaps original characters?
Burnett: Yes. Much the way HBO's Rome did. With the spirit of history. Clearly A.D. is not predominantly Bible stories. This goes beyond that. But we spoke to all our advisors and our huge network, NBC, and they can't wait for this.
TV Guide Magazine: Talk about growing your partnership with NBC, where The Voice has been quite a hit.
Burnett: I felt very at home at NBC. When I was filming The Bible, I was commuting back to Los Angeles for The Voice. I was sitting with NBC executives and talking about what I was doing, and I would bring back and share clips. I didn't realize it at the time, but [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt's wheels were turning. And then The Bible comes on and does huge numbers. From the beginning, I told many people that we were going to go on [with another series], and there was much interest in this one. I chose NBC because I believe they could turn this into an enormous event. I've committed so much time and energy and passion with NBC into The Voice, and I know exactly what NBC is capable of. This is more than TV for us. When you have the amount of passion that Roma and I have for a subject, you're willing to do anything it takes to launch and make it happen.
TV Guide Magazine: What about History? They helped turn The Bible into a big event as well. Did it come down to getting a better deal at NBC?
Burnett: It was a number of things. A deal is obviously always part of it. But equally with that, I'm a network person. My day job is being an American network TV producer. I'm very comfortable at the American networks. And I believe that there is no place on the planet Earth than can launch a series like an American network. Nowhere. I'm very grateful to History. And I have a great relationship with History. This was a situation where Roma and I have to look at the next 10 years and at what is the biggest platform. One Three Media, my company with Hearst, has international distribution. It's hugely important to us
TV Guide Magazine: Interestingly, your production partner Hearst also owns 50 percent of the History channel, but The Bible sequel still ended up elsewhere.
Burnett: Hearst will make the objective right decision. If you know anything about Hearst, the No. 1 thing about Hearst is integrity. I know for a fact, Hearst will always make the right choice. They looked at this completely at arm's length and what would be the best deal. We had a lot of discussions [with other networks].
TV Guide Magazine: You previously told us you planned to cut a new version of The Bible, this time interspersed with biblical scholars and theologians, for History. Is that still happening?
Burnett: I don't think that will happen in the short run. There are only so many things we can do.
TV Guide Magazine: What's the status of the release of an edited-down version of The Bible in movie theaters?
Burnett: Our entire team is in 5.1 surround sound mix on the movie right now. There's a lot to be told on that in the very near future. The movie is completely cut. I believe it comes in at 2 hours and 13 minutes. We have offers from distributors. It's getting released. It's a question of what is the smartest choice to make. We're not ruling out anyone.
TV Guide Magazine: Given your relationship with NBC, I assume (sister film unit) Universal has reached out about distributing the movie.
Burnett: Obviously they'd be on the table.
TV Guide Magazine: Back to A.D., when do you head into production?
Burnett: We'll be shooting it next year, back in Morocco.