Will 'The Contender' Be A Ratings Champ?

Burnett to sell brands integration packages for new NBC show

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% Last week's jaw-dropping deal between NBC and a producing team led by reality king Mark Burnett for "The Contender," an unscripted drama about boxing that will cost the Peacock $2 million an episode in license fees and ad inventory to the producers, is rare. NBC reportedly agreed to allow the producers to sell six commercial spots on their own—almost a third of the 20 national :30 units that customarily run in a network prime-time hour.

The network's willingness to part with that much of the ad inventory in a traditional license deal is a testament to the supreme leverage that the "Survivor" creator currently holds in the corridors of network TV and of NBC's confidence in this project. And it also doesn't hurt to have Dreamworks SKG co-principal Jeffrey Katzenberg, and one of cinema's most mythic pugilists, Sylvester Stallone aka Rocky, on your side as co-exec producers, all united by their love for boxing. The 16-episode series launching next January, which, Burnett promises will re-energize the currently moribund American interest in boxing, was originally developed at Dreamworks as Katzenberg reached out to Burnett to get involved.


This exercised power should lead to some potent brand-integration opportunities for the series. At a press conference yesterday in downtown Los Angeles, Jeff Zucker, president-NBC Entertainment, Cable and News Group, was coy about the plans for brand integration. He said integration wasn't necessarily a given, but "we wouldn't close the door, though." A prominent Madison Avenue media buyer, who didn't want to contradict Zucker on the record, told Madison+Vine that indeed "Burnett has integration rights and has the credibility on Madison Avenue to sell integration packages at a premium." This exec went on to say that the producers, who set off a frenzied auction for the property last week that involved other major broadcast networks, did not go to the networks with any brands attached.

So why would NBC pony up for a concept—with no pilot—such an exorbitant amount, an amount that is more than what networks generally spend on many scripted shows, much less reality shows that are generally cheaper? One needs to look no further than the recent Nielsen ratings. Both "Survivor" on CBS and "The Apprentice" on NBC, from Burnett, are two of the most-watched shows on TV and have featured brands prominently.

Zucker's reticence yesterday notwithstanding, it appears that "The Contender" is poised to take an approach in terms of the brand integration that will be similar to last summer's moderate NBC hit "The Restaurant," a six-episode unscripted drama about New York chef Rocco DiSpirito's efforts to launch a an eatery at breakneck speed. Burnett was brought on to oversee the production and brand integration on that show.

"The Restaurant" was a barter deal where the producers waived the license fee in exchange for receiving half of the ad inventory, which was then spun into integration packages for American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi.


So with the scandal-ridden sport of boxing so far off the radar of most American viewers, what makes the producers—who also plan to establish an "academy" to nurture the careers of the contestants in the series—and NBC think the show will resonate? "With 'Rocky,' it wasn't about boxing, it was about the people around [him] that gave him the reason to go on. Otherwise he was just a man drifting like so many people… What we really want to do [with 'The Contender'] is go behind the scenes," said Stallone at the press conference. He will be featured prominently on the show, similar to Donald Trump's presence in "The Apprentice".

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% "In most other sports like the NBA, there are nine million scouts out there who know every single talent. But it's not the same in boxing," added Burnett. "There are thousands and thousands of young men that want their shot. This shot is their shot."

Perry Simon, President, Viacom Productions also believes the show may also address a current hot-button issue in network TV. "I suspect part of the appeal of this show is that it reaches the elusive male audience which makes the advertising value of the show even greater. Brands would likely pay a premium for that."

An independent TV producer in Hollywood, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, has some reservations about the project. "That it was so hotly contested and that so many networks were interested actually mystifies me. The reason boxing isn't really on television anymore is because advertisers don't really have the taste for it. But then again, how many times have things gone in and out of favor and then been repackaged, relaunched and become the next new thing? It could happen here. This is all about Burnett's current leverage." Contributing:T.L.Stanley

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