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Mark Burnett and Sly Stallone to produce 'The Contender' reality boxing show for NBC


By Reality TV World staff, 02/23/2004 

Mark Burnett, Sylvester Stallone, and Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg have announced that they are teaming up for a new reality boxing series called (what else) The Contender.

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The subject of a heated bidding war that ended on Friday with NBC landing the program for a record new reality series price of over two million dollars an episode, the series will focus around a nationwide search for a "new boxing superstar" who could, according to Daily Variety, "breathe life back into the troubled sport."

Hoping to extend the franchise far beyond the program's initial broadcast run, the trio are also hoping use the series as a springboard for the launch of a new boxing federation that would be "independent of current pugilistic organizations," Burnett told Variety -- which explains Katzenberg's big studio involvement.

"We're looking to reclaim a part of America that's been missing," Burnett said, referring to the days of yesteryear in which the average person could name the world heavyweight champ. "Where are the 'Thrilla in Manilas?' The Sugar Ray Leonards? We all agree no one can tell who owns what belt."

Noting the series itself would still be an "unscripted drama of the highest order," Burnett explained that Stallone, Katzenberg and himself hope restore the scandal-ridden but still incredibly lucrative boxing industry to a more open and wholesome level. "We're all businessmen, and there's a serious business around boxing," Burnett told Variety. "It's the highest-paying sport, yet no one believes in it anymore. What happens when we make it transparent and clean? Once clean, the upside is astronomical."

As for Stallone, according to Burnett, the former Rocky star will function as the series' host/mentor. "This is a business arrangement, first and foremost, but Sly will be the heart and soul of the show," Burnett explained. "He'll mentor these fighters with the whole Rocky spirit. He would never get involved in this if it weren't 100% above board."

Looking to emphasize how the reality show itself would actually be just a small part of the planned partnership and showing no hesitancy at all in risking the alienation of the established boxing community, Burnett noted that "this is much bigger than that, Rocky is the story of America. It's the heart and soul of this country. We're going to reinvent boxing."

After pitching the program to all four major networks last week, the partners closed the $2,000,000+ an episode deal with NBC on Friday morning, making the program not only the most expensive first-season reality show ever, but also more expensive than most first-year scripted dramas and comedies.

The Los Angeles Times reports that ABC offered about $1.5 million an episode, with FOX offering just under $2 million, and CBS coming in someplace in between, but what reportedly closed the deal for NBC wasn't just its cash offer, but also its willingness to include an advertising barter deal in which Burnett will be able to purchase and resell six ad spots per episode from NBC.

Noting that the huge deal ignores what was the initial appeal of reality programming -- the genre's low acquisition costs to the networks -- the Times notes that the size of the deal and the general inability to repeat reality programming will put NBC under significant pressure to maximize ad sales in order to be able to turn a profit on the series (in order words, like The Apprentice, expect NBC to possibly rebroadcast the show in a second weekly timeslot, as well as offer encore broadcasts via a basic cable network partnership.)

Explained an anonymous NBC executive to the Times: "There are certain tent-pole producers, in certain genres, that demand premium license fees because they deliver ratings successes." "In the reality business, you have Mark Burnett. With his track record, you are willing to pay a premium because this could potentially be a very lucrative business to be in, even at the high licensing fee we're paying for an unscripted show."

The Contender's sale brings the number of Burnett-produced reality projects airing at NBC to three (following The Restaurant and The Apprentice) and the number of programs which illustrate his apparent special fondness for the word "the" to four (Burnett's The Casino series will premiere on FOX this summer.)



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