Fox's Virgin vehicle fights to stand out

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thrill-seeking adventurer and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson can pilot a hot-air balloon, bungee jump off a cliff and, perhaps, send people into space, but his latest project, a reality show on the Fox network, is turning into one of his biggest challenges.

"The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best," limped out of the starting gate last month and hasn't improved much since, despite some high-profile stunts and the marketing muscle of Branson's Virgin business empire.

After four installments, the show has attracted about 5.2 million viewers per episode-well behind its rivals on the three major networks and its 8 p.m. reality show competitor, NBC's "The Biggest Loser," which pulls in more than 10 million viewers each week.

staying with it

However, Fox doesn't consider "Rebel Billionaire" a big enough loser to pull the plug on the show just yet. The network has been pleased with the show creatively, which some TV critics have called "`Apprentice'-meets-'Amazing Race,"' and intends to stick with it through the 10-episode run, a spokesman says.

That's good news for Virgin, whose various divisions are lovingly incorporated into the show and given unprecedented and invaluable exposure in the U.S. Everything from Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Hotels to the Virgin-sponsored V Fest concert in England and the Virgin Galactic space-travel program have screen time as 16 contestants visit 10 countries and go through physical and mental challenges to try to win Branson's job.

Producers say they're frustrated by the low ratings for the show, but they are happy with the prime-time network real estate for a company and a mega-mogul better known in Europe and other international spots than in the U.S.

"The prime motivation behind the show was to raise the awareness level of the brand and Richard Branson," says Lori Levin, VP-corporate affairs, Virgin Group and an executive producer and creator of the show, along with reality veterans at Bunim-Murray (behind MTV's "The Real World and "Road Rules" franchises). "It's a perfect showcase for the Virgin businesses."

It's also perfect timing for Virgin as the company is preparing to launch Virgin America, a new no-frills airline in the U.S., and could use "Rebel Billionaire" to generate some public awareness for the Virgin moniker before the carrier takes off sometime next year.

The show's timing, on the other hand, might have been off. "Rebel Billionaire" was on the drawing board for more than two years, but wasn't sold to Fox until early this year. It launched in November, after NBC's "The Apprentice" already had become a hit and ABC's "The Benefactor," toplined by Mark Cuban, had come and gone.

"Reality shows are being copycatted so quickly that I wonder if you need to be first," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, VP-director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom. "It makes me wonder if this particular sub-genre was already owned by Trump."


TV has been most successful historically when it offers variety rather than homogeneity, another media analyst says. "The audience says, `Give me something I haven't seen before,"' says Larry Gerbrandt, head of the media and entertainment practice at consultancy Alix Partners, Los Angeles. "And in this case, the show is derivative as opposed to original."

The network promoted "Rebel Billionaire" relentlessly during its Major League Baseball games and playoffs, through consumer magazines, cable networks and the Web. Virgin Megastores were plastered with promotional material, in-store monitors have shown clips, and employees have worn "Rebel Billionaire" buttons. Virgin Atlantic Airways dressed its workers and its nine U.S. terminals with "Rebel Billionaire" paraphernalia. Radio promotions gave away trips to London. Virgin Mobile sent text messages to its customers, and Virgin Electronics supplied gadgets as contest prizes.

Branson's "companies speak to a lot of consumers across different demographics, which works well for a broad-based show," says Chris Carlisle, Fox's exec VP-marketing. "We were able to get the message out in places we'd normally have to pay to get into."

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