Madison+Vine: Burnett cuts rich deal for 'Contender'

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NBC and a production team led by reality king Mark Burnett entered into a jaw-dropping deal last week for "The Contender," an unscripted drama about boxing that will cost the peacock network $2 million an episode in license fees and ad inventory.

General Electric Co.'s NBC has agreed to a rare deal, allowing the producers to sell six spots on their own-almost a third of the 20 national 30-second units that customarily run in a network prime-time hour.

The network's willingness to part with that much of the ad inventory is testament both to the leverage the "Survivor" creator currently holds in network TV and NBC's confidence in the project. 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-executive producers, all united by their love for the sport. The 16-episode series launches next January, and Mr. Burnett promises it will re-energize the currently moribund American interest in boxing. The project was originally developed at Dreamworks, and Mr. Katzenberg reached out to Mr. Burnett to get involved.

potent opportunities

There are some potent brand-integration opportunities for the series. At a press conference last week in Los Angeles, Jeff Zucker, president-NBC Entertainment, Cable and News Group, was coy. He said integration wasn't necessarily a given, but "we wouldn't close the door, though." A prominent Madison Avenue media buyer, however, said that "Burnett has integration rights and has the credibility on Madison Avenue to sell integration packages at a premium." This executive 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 such an exorbitant amount, an amount that is more than what networks generally spend on many scripted shows, much less reality shows, for a concept with no pilot? Mr. Burnett's "Survivor" on Viacom's CBS and "The Apprentice" on NBC are two of the most-watched shows on TV.

Even though the scandal-ridden sport of boxing is far off the radar of most American viewers, 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," said Mr. Stallone at the press conference. "What we really want to do [with `The Contender'] is go behind the scenes." He will be featured prominently on the show, similar to Donald Trump in "The Apprentice".

going after the men

Perry Simon, president, Viacom Productions, 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 had some reservations about the project. "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."

Mr. Burnett is not the only one in TV with a boxing property. Former heavyweight champion George Foreman and HBO boxing analyst Jim Lampley are also shopping a similar project to the networks.

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