Virgin-Branded TV Series Generates Big Buzz But Low Ratings

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LOS ANGELES -- 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.
Richard Branson's quest for Trump-like ratings may have been hindered by late timing. 'The Rebel Billionaire' aired long after 'The Apprentice' had established the genre and 'The Benefactor' further explored it on U.S. TV.

The series, 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 Mr. Branson's Virgin business empire.

Biggest loser

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

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 said.

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 Mr. Branson's job. Its opening credit sequence alone features the show's 16 contestants posing in front of a shiny Virgin Atlantic 747 at an airport.

Producers frustrated

Producers said they're frustrated by the low ratings for the adventure-challenge show, but they are happy with the prime-time network real estate for a company and a mega-mogul better
Richard Branson's quest for Trump-like ratings may have been hindered by late timing. 'The Rebel Billionaire' aired long after 'The Apprentice' had established the genre and 'The Benefactor' further explored it on U.S. TV.

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," said Lori Levin, vice president for corporate affairs at the 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 readying 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've been off.

Late timing?

Rebel Billionaire had been 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 billionaire basketball team owner Mark Cuban, had come and gone.

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

TV has been most successful historically when it offers variety rather than homogeneity, another media analyst said.

"The audience says, 'Give me something I haven't seen before,'" said Larry Gerbrandt, head of the media and entertainment practice at consultancy Alix Partners in Los Angeles. "And in this case, the show is derivative as opposed to original."

Ms. Levin said she initially thought about creating a show around a Willie Wonka-style international treasure hunt, but the logistics proved too difficult. She still sees the show more as Charlie & the Chocolate Factory than The Apprentice.

Relentless promotion

The network promoted Rebel Billionaire relentlessly during its Major League Baseball games and playoffs, through consumer magazines, cable networks and the Web. Marketing executives used the extensive Virgin databases to market directly to consumers, and tapped into the seven Virgin businesses with a U.S. presence for some wall-to-wall exposure, which included screening parties, sweepstakes and digital downloads.

Virgin Megastores have been plastered with promotional material for the show, in-store monitors have shown clips, and employees have been wearing 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.

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

Rappelled down building

Not to be outdone, the British tycoon long-considered a master of the publicity stunt, arrived via jet pack to announce the show and rappelled down the side of a building at its premiere.

Crown Publishing released an updated version of Mr. Branson's autobiography in the fall, with a cover mention of the show. Fox also created an extreme sports publicity tour that took a rock-climbing wall to four markets.

While major metropolitan city dwellers may be familiar with Mr. Branson or the Virgin brand, the two are still an unknown entity in much of the U.S., especially in the heartland, where a broadcast series is expected to help make major inroads, Ms. Levin said.

"We always believed a show would cement the brand in people's minds like nothing before has," Ms. Levin said. "From a marketing and PR vantage point, it's a success."
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