How a Mustang Muscled Out a Pontiac to Be the Next KITT

After Watching Rival GM Score With 'Transformers,' Ford Fought for 'Knight Rider'

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LOS ANGELES -- Among the many fun buttons frequently pressed on the dashboard of KITT, the sleek, ebony car-hero of the 1980s series "Knight Rider," the turbo boost function remains both the most memorable and the most enduring: When engaged, it was used to hurdle the car over virtually any obstacle, from gaping ravines to gun-toting libertines.
KITT was in its previous incarnation a modified 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. But Ford got past GM and now the hero car is a Mustang Shelby.
KITT was in its previous incarnation a modified 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. But Ford got past GM and now the hero car is a Mustang Shelby. Credit: NBC/Paul Drinkwater

Next month, KITT's turbo boost will again be employed to jump over an age-old Hollywood impediment: creating a hit series.

Twenty-five years after its debut, "Knight Rider" is back at NBC, which will air a two-hour movie of the week debuting on Feb. 17. (And yes, the Hoff makes an appearance or two.)

Original inspiration
Asked what inspired him to the original "Knight Rider," TV writer-producer Glen A. Larson once famously explained, "I wanted to do 'The Lone Ranger' with a car."

The original red-eyed KITT is best remembered as the modified 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with a smarmy-voiced A.I. and an interior like Darth Vader's bathroom.

For this go 'round, Ford Motor Co.'s Mustang Shelby GT500KR will be playing the role of Michael Knight's trusty steed -- and both General Motors corp. and Mr. Larson likely wouldn't mind firing a silver bullet straight into it its chassis.

For while NBC's "Knight Rider" is at full gallop with the latest Ford pony car, Mr. Larson's planned rival feature film project for "Knight Rider" is idling at the Weinstein Co., stuck in neutral thanks to the Writers Guild of America strike.

Curiously, a mélange of GM products, including a virtual KITT clone, a redesigned Chevy Camaro, were peppered throughout DreamWorks' massive hit "Transformers" last summer. (GM sales were up 2.7% in August 2007 through October 2007 compared with same time frame a year earlier, with just over 1 million GM vehicles sold.)

So how did GM -- a company repped in Hollywood by the William Morris Agency, Mr. Silverman's alma mater, and which already created the car -- get caught so flat-footed?

Victim of its own strategy
Ironically enough, it might have been the victim of its own market strategy, one that hinges on restricting the development of new cars for its many marquees: GM has just reported a 4.4% decline in December sales and a 6% drop for the full year, after positioning the Chevrolet brand as an entry-level vehicle, Pontiac and Buick as mid-luxury cars, and Cadillac as its luxury brand, grouped with Saab and Hummer.

"The old 'Knight Rider' ride? That car doesn't exist, in essence," explains the show's executive producer, Dave Bartis, a partner with Hollywood director Doug Liman in Dutch Oven Prods. He added: "When you narrow it down to American-made, two-door muscle cars, we were left with one choice from each company."

(Simplifying matters, Chrysler plans to cease production on its Crossfire coupe next year, and GM's Camaro won't be available until much later this year.)

"Coming off a summer of 'Transformers,' it's obvious how important this space is," says Al Uzielli, senior advisor to Ford Global Brand Entertainment. "We approached this really strategically and attacked it on all fronts: Our media buyers knew there had to be some advertising commitment to get involved."

While Ford would not confirm just how much advertising was required of it to displace GM's ur-KITT, Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, called the automaker's commitment "enormous."

Prominent sponsorship
Mr. Uzielli did say the deal extends far beyond merely putting the Mustang GT as the KITT car; numerous other Ford brands will be featured in the movie of the week, as well as several Ford spots that don't feature the Mustang specifically. Should "Knight Rider" be ordered as a fall series, Ford would again be a prominent sponsor, in much the same way it backs "American Idol."

Mr. Silverman said that's a change in how NBC has done business with advertisers, too.

"It's essential," he said, "that we initiate dialogue with ad partners early and throughout process."

Of course, should NBC order up a full season of "Knight Rider," Ford's gain would be Mr. Larson's loss: Explains one film producer, "If it goes to series, it kills the movie."

A spokeswoman for the Weinstein Co. said that it had already discussed its project with two automakers, and would resume active development immediately after the WGA strike.

Mr. Larson reportedly had been approached by NBC about ditching Weinstein Co. to set up his long-gestating film project at NBC Universal; when he declined to do so, the movie blog Ain't It Cool News reported last fall, NBC steamed ahead with its own "Knight Rider" pilot, to which it retained the TV rights in the hopes of blunting, if not preventing, its opening.

Mr. Silverman called that scenario "inaccurate" and added that the decision to proceed with "Knight Rider" as a movie of the week was made "in a vacuum" and without contact with Mr. Larson.

Agents for Mr. Larson didn't return calls; nor would at the Weinstein Co. would not comment on Mr. Larson's alleged contretemps with NBC. But what is clear is that Ford won't likely be Mr. Larson's choice, now that it's part of the NBC series.

Said Mr. Uzielli of his early talks with Weinstein Co., "It's gotten extremely quiet; we never heard back."

Promotions conundrum
In the meanwhile, NBC is still facing a promotion conundrum: On the one hand, with a dearth of new content available due to the writers strike, "Knight Rider" could do exceptionally well with audiences starved for scripted material.

On the other, the general flight from prime time means that promoting "Knight" presents its own special set of difficulties: If the TV writers strike drags on into the spring, viewership at broadcast networks is expected to decline on average 9% from January through May, according to estimates made by agency Magna Global.

Vince Manze, president-program planning, scheduling and strategy for NBC Entertainment, said "it probably will take more outside marketing if the [ratings] numbers dip."

Already, the strike has already deflated NBC's original plan to promote "Knight Rider": An "'80s Week" of programming stunts would have deployed Reagan-era favorites such as Felicia Rashaad of "The Cosby Show" on "Law and Order" and attired the "Deal or No Deal" models in "Flashdance" garb. But with writers picketing, NBC retreads such as "Bionic Woman" just can't be tweaked.

Still, NBC's Mr. Manze also sees its Ford pact for "Knight Rider" presaging additional, comprehensive deal-making with Madison Avenue that goes beyond traditional product placement towards an early-on involvement with advertisers.

"This was an effort by everyone -- sales, programming and marketing, and it represents the future of good, natural integration," said Mr. Manze. "Here, the car really is the star."
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