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NBC's 'The Contender' to premiere February 21, then air Tuesdays versus Fox's 'American Idol'


By Reality TV World staff, 12/06/2004 

Despite witnessing Fox's The Next Great Champ copycat series draw dismal ratings, it looks like NBC and Survivor and The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett are still looking for a fight. A Nielsen fight. NBC announced last week that The Contender, Burnett's highly-publicized reality boxing series that had its premise copied by Fox, will premiere in late February -- and air regularly versus Fox's American Idol ratings heavyweight.

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Hoping to showcase the show to viewers before it begins going head-to-head with Idol, The Contender, executive produced by Burnett, Rocky star Sylvester Stallone, and DreamWorks SKG's Jeffrey Katzenberg, will debut with a special 90-minute premiere on Monday, February 21 at 9:30PM ET/PT. Beginning Tuesday, March 1 The Contender will move into its regular 8PM ET/PT time period versus American Idol.

NBC had previously announced its Tuesday night showdown plans when it unveiled its 2004-2005 season schedule in May 2004, however given both the poor ratings performance of Fox's reality boxing series and the generally weak performance of NBC's new fall series, there had been speculation that the network might opt to move The Contender to another time period.

Rushed into production after Fox lost the bidding for Burnett's The Contender, Champ debuted on September 7 as part of Fox's ongoing strategy of getting its copycat reality series to the airwaves before the original series that they copy. The network followed the same formula (to better success) with both July's premiere of Trading Spouses (its rip-off of ABC's Wife Swap series), and November's premiere of Nanny 911 (its version of ABC's upcoming Supernanny series.)

The Contender's new confirmed broadcast date appears to mark the end of a high-stakes broadcast game of chicken in which NBC swerved, but Fox ultimately crashed.

Knowing that NBC was targeting The Contender for midseason, Fox announced from the beginning that The Next Great Champ (announced after Fox lost the bidding for the broadcast rights to The Contender) would hit the airwaves two months earlier and debut in November following the network's World Series coverage.

Responding to Fox's move, NBC announced in May that The Contender would still premiere in midseason, but that the network would use the reality uber-producer's latest series to challenge Fox's smash-hit American Idol series (much as NBC had done to it three years ago, when CBS used Burnett's Survivor series as a Thursday night beachhead that allowed them to destroy the decades-long ratings dominance of NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday programming.)

Apparently still not satisfied with allowing Fox's Champ clone to get such a jump on it, NBC revised its own plans in July, announcing that The Contender's debut would also be accelerated to November to match the Fox series. Reacting to NBC's decision to match Champ's November premiere, Fox pushed Champ's premiere up even further -- to September 10. Unable to match Fox's September date as their own show was still in production, Burnett and Dreamworks filed a lawsuit to prevent Fox from broadcasting Champ until Contender was also ready for broadcast. The action prompted Fox to move Champ's premiere up yet again, to September 7, in an unsuccessful attempt to debut the series before the court's preliminary injunction hearing -- a hearing which Fox won, resulting in Burnett and Dreamworks declining to pursue the issue further.

Despite an extensive promotional campaign and the significant press generated by the network brawl, The Next Great Champ premiered to only 5.2 million viewers on September 7. After first dropping its Friday encores and scheduling the series for an unplanned hiatus that would see it make lowly-rated Friday evenings its new permanent home upon its return, Fox pulled the plug completely on the series, dumping Champ's remaining episodes on its Fox Sports Net regional networks.

Whether Burnett's The Contender suffers the same fate remains to be seen, however given NBC's decision to revert to its original plan to go head-to-head with American Idol, ratings success would appear to be less likely. Particularly since the scheduling will be a rematch bout of sorts -- despite its current status as a linchpin of NBC's Thursday night programming, NBC originally planned to air Burnett's The Apprentice series versus the Fox ratings goliath. After watching the show deliver monster ratings during special Thursday evening broadcasts of its first two episodes, NBC attempted to move The Apprentice to it's originally planned Wednesday, 9PM ET/PT time period, where it was KO'd by Idol's broadcast. Reacting quickly, NBC rescheduled its Thursday night schedule and permanently gave the nascent hit series the nearly as competitive 9-10PM hour versus CBS's top-rated CSI series.

Will Burnett even the record at 1-1? We'll know in a few months, but given both Champ's performance and the disastrous results from last season's Apprentice matchup, oddsmakers would have to make Burnett and NBC a heavy underdog.


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