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Oscar de la Hoya changes his story about the origins of Fox's 'The Next Great Champ'


By Wade Paulsen, 07/19/2004 

As part of Fox's counter-offensive last week against the widespread charges of reality-TV idea theft directed at it, boxing world champion Oscar de la Hoya defended his show, The Next Great Champ, against claims that it blatantly ripped off NBC's The Contender. However, the Golden Boy's new tale is vastly different from his previous story -- so different, in fact, that any claims that de la Hoya might have to the virtues of honor and integrity may have suffered a technical knockout.

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During the Television Critics Association press tour, de la Hoya (as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune) claimed that he had dreamed up his own idea for a boxing show, pitched it first to Endemol USA (who ultimately signed on as producers of The Next Great Champ), and then later pitched it to Mark Burnett Productions. According to de la Hoya, Burnett and his associates "said 'Oh, [your idea] is OK, but we have a great idea'" -- The Contender.

De la Hoya also claimed that Burnett and his partners in The Contender knew that de la Hoya was going to take "his" almost-identical idea to some other network. Thus, in de la Hoya's current story, the charges that de la Hoya and Endemol USA stole the idea of The Contender, aided and abetted by Fox, are totally false, and his only contact with Mark Burnett and Burnett's co-producer DreamWorks was to try to sell them his idea, which they countered by trying to lure him away to their idea.

De la Hoya's claims were backed up in part by Fox entertainment president Gail Berman, who claimed (according to the Toronto Sun) that Burnett tried to poach de la Hoya for his show.

De la Hoya's new story fits in neatly with Berman's grade-school-level "everybody does it" theme regarding idea theft. In fact, it portrays Fox's show as not just a ripoff but an independently-developed original (note that copyright law protects independently-developed expressions of an idea, even if identical) and Burnett as a potential pirate, trying to steal a soon-to-be Fox star.

But how much of de la Hoya's new story is "knocked out" by his previous statements? Based on de la Hoya's interview with a Scripps Howard sportswriter in early May, it appears unlikely that the Golden Boy's new story would last through the first round.

In his prior interview, de la Hoya said that his involvement in boxing-focused reality TV began around the start of 2003. "These people approached me to do a boxing show with recognizable fighters. They said they had talked to Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson about it. It sounded great, and then we never heard from them again."

After that, according to de la Hoya, the next time that he had any involvement with reality TV was when he was approached by DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg about appearing on The Contender, which he turned down. He denigrated The Contender as a "glorified tough-man competition," but he was then contacted by Endemol and agreed to host the almost-identical The Next Great Champ. Some cynics have noted that, for de la Hoya, the real difference between the shows may have been the co-production and promotional rights that Endemol granted the Golden Boy ... but which were not available on The Contender.

Thus, in his original story, de la Hoya was passive in the development of the reality show. Instead, he was approached by producers who wanted him to lend his considerable fame and charisma to their projects. In his new version, he actively created an idea himself and then pitched it to producers. The two stories cannot be reconciled; one must be false.

We seem to be the only media outlet to note the discrepancy between these stories -- a discrepancy worthy of former Democrat "flavor-of-the-month" Joe Wilson. But which story is more credible? To us, the choice is obvious: we always tend to believe something said outside the confines of a massive publicity campaign over a high-profile, rehearsed performance. In addition, the original story sounds much more like the way Hollywood does business than the latter one does.

We note that Gail Berman claimed that the critics of her network's reality theft were people who "don't love and embrace" reality TV and were trying to discredit the genre. However, this disdain actually appears to be a positive for The Next Great Champ. Indeed, the probable reason that de la Hoya's flip-flop went unnoticed by the nearly 200-strong Television Critics Association is that the critics do not "love and embrace" reality TV and so ignored the original stories about The Next Great Champ.

Despite Gail Berman's hyperbole that Mark Burnett, DreamWorks and NBC are "acting as if they invented the sport [of boxing]," these two shows are far from being the first boxing projects on television -- Fox, for example, aired Celebrity Boxing, including such mismatches as ex-Olympian Olga Korbut versus photogenic Darva Conger (with predictable results). Endemol told TV Guide that it pitched a boxing show with Laila Ali (Muhammad Ali's daughter) to NBC two years ago. Thus, the idea of a reality-TV boxing show is nothing new ... but the execution of such a show as an elimination event with around sixteen unknown amateur or beginning professional boxers living together and doing battle is novel.

As Fox repeatedly (and correctly) stated during the critics' tour, an idea isn't protectable under copyright law. However, the execution of an idea is ... and execution appears to be what The Next Great Champ borrowed from The Contender, not the idea of a boxing show. We expect that we have still not heard the last of this battle.

One area in which The Next Great Champ appears unlikely to match up to The Contender, though, is in professionalism of production. According to the New York Times, the California Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing in the state, considered shutting down production of The Next Great Champ due to its failure to comply with state laws on fight promotion, and it may still decide to block airing of the show following hearings before the commission.

Although de la Hoya's Golden Boy Enterprises is a licensed promoter in California, the head of the commission, Sanford Michelman, said that Endemol had paid the participants, making it at least an unlicensed co-promoter, and that Golden Boy had not signed a promotional contract with the other production entities at the time that fighting commenced last month.

As a result, Michelman said that the Fox bouts were held in violation of both state and Federal law. The California Athletic Commission has not suspended production because a delay could damage the budding careers of the boxers. Nevertheless, Michelman blasted the "very cavalier attitude" of the show's producers toward boxing regulators and threatened further action, including blocking the subsequent broadcast of the bouts, unless the promoters complied with the law.

And what type of boxing events are characterized by the promoters continually trying to evade the reach of state boxing commissions, as the promoters of The Next Great Champ stand accused of doing? Why, tough-man competitions, of course.

(Photo credit Fox)


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