Fox dons gloves in hot arena

Skein's winner to fight for existing title, get Golden Boy contract

“The Contender” is getting some competition — and the producers behind the two pugilistic projects are already trading verbal punches.

Fox and Endemol USA are teaming up with WBC super-welterweight champ Oscar de la Hoya for what’s being tentatively called “The Next Great Champ.” Weekly reality skein is designed to find a boxing superstar — and possibly give NBC’s star-powered pugilism program a run for its money.

Biggest difference between the Peacock and Fox skeins: “The winner of this show will actually fight for an existing title,” Endemol USA prexy David Goldberg said. “He’ll go from being a nobody to getting a chance at being a title holder.”

Winner also will get a “substantial cash prize,” Goldberg added, as well as a contract with de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions.

“Ours is the only boxing show where we have a real-life boxer, one who’s working right now, rather than someone who portrayed a boxer,” said Fox reality supremo Mike Darnell, in a not-too-subtle dig at “Contender” exec producer Sylvester Stallone. NBC’s skein will feature the participation of at least one ex-champ, Sugar Ray Leonard.

“Champ” is set to bow this fall and run for eight to 12 weeks; NBC has said its show likely won’t be on until January 2005, though that’s obviously subject to change.

Fox skein will take amateur and fledgling pro boxers with less than four bouts under their belts, and pit them against each other each week.

As on “The Contender,” two of the “Champ” contenders will face off in three- or four-round bouts at the end of each episode, with various other competitive elements within each episode deciding who steps into the ring each week.

Each of the roughly dozen contestants will bring along a friend or family member to serve as their “corner man,” someone to help them fight through to the next round.

Stallone and the other producers of “The Contender” — Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks and Mark Burnett — have been vocal about their determination to bring buzz back to boxing by working outside the existing system, possibly going so far as to create their own boxing league (Daily Variety, Feb. 18).

Goldberg and Darnell seem content to work within the system, and said they’re already talking to various legit boxing associations about letting the winner of “Champ” take on an existing title holder. No deals are in place, but both men seem confident that de la Hoya’s participation and backing will allow a title fight to go forward.

“We’d been approached with various boxing ideas over the years but never got on board. Oscar is what made us interested,” Goldberg said.

“He’s a gold-medal Olympian, he’s articulate and he brings us instant credibility.”

At least one other network was pitched the idea of “Champ,” with word of a de la Hoya project leaking out last month (Daily Variety, March 12).

The alliance between Endemol USA and Fox for “Champ” promises to test the strength of some pre-existing business relationships.

Endemol produces “Fear Factor,” one of the biggest hits on “Contender” net NBC. And “Contender” exec producer Burnett is readying the launch of “The Casino,” one of Fox’s biggest bets for summer.

What’s more, Fox — along with three other nets — was pitched the concept for “The Contender,” a fact that will no doubt have Burnett, Katzenberg and Stallone closely monitoring development of “Champ” to see if it seems too similar to their idea.

Without fully knowing the details of “Champ,” Burnett and Katzenberg said they couldn’t offer a full assesment of the Fox project. But both men clearly seemed disturbed about the idea, since both Fox and de la Hoya were briefed on the details of “The Contender” several weeks ago.

“If we feel they’ve stepped over the line, it’s creatively outrageous… (and) not only will we take legal action, but it doesn’t bode well for the future prospects (of Burnett and DreamWorks projects landing at Fox),” Burnett said. “Fox lost out (on ‘The Contender’) fair and square, and it’s hard to believe they’d do something substantially similar.”

Katzenberg was more reserved in his response, though his tone indicated an equal amount of disbelief about “Champ.”

“No one has a monopoly on boxing,” he said. “I just hope they have a good show that’s going to benefit the sport of boxing, in which case, we wish them well.”

Previous legal tussles over reality show idea theft — such as the CBS-ABC squabble over the “Survivor”-like “I’m a Celebrity! Get Me Out of Here” — have ended with rulings that execution of ideas is key in determining violations of the law. In the CBS-ABC case, a judge essentially said the Alphabet skein wasn’t in the same creative league as Burnett’s “Survivor.”

Goldberg said he’s been aware of multiple boxing projects in recent months, but said “Champ” stands on its own as an Endemol/de la Hoya project.

“We met with Oscar, developed a concept, and Fox picked it up,” he said. “Nobody said to us, ‘We want you to develop a show for us.’ Ours has to be unique because it’s the only boxing format I know anything about.”

As for de la Hoya, while he has two major fights of his own coming up, “He’s promised us he’s going to give us a lot of his time and effort,” Darnell said. “Oscar’s a huge part of this television show.”

Darnell believes compelling contestants and de la Hoya’s presence will give “Champ” much-needed femme appeal, but said the show won’t be all about melodramatics, either.

“He’s the most female-friendly boxer in existence,” he said of de la Hoya, whose previous showbiz ventures include releasing a Grammy-nommed CD. “But this show is about boxing, and there’s something dramatic about boxing because in the end, you know someone is going to get hit and people are going to get hurt. You get a good boxing match, and it could be the biggest thing in the world.”

Deal for “Champ” — which was brokered by WMA and Jeanne Newman — comes in the wake of both NBC’s rich pact for “The Contender” as well as MGM Television’s decision to shop a boxing talent hunt featuring the “Rocky” name and music.

Darnell and Goldberg declined to discuss any other specific boxing projects, though insiders close to “Champ” said there have been some discussions about combining some elements of the MGM skein — most notably the “Rocky” music — with the Fox/Endemol project. It’s unclear if MGM would be interested in such a scenario, particularly since the studio is still in the process of setting up its stand-alone project at a network (Daily Variety, March 12).

With two primetime boxing talent hunts now greenlit — and a third still in the works — it raises the question of just how much viewer interest there is in boxing-themed skeins. Timing also could be key, since the success or failure of the project that launches first could have a major impact on the second skein on the air.

The blood and sweat that’s about to be poured into both projects may cause some to wonder if the nets have gotten a little, well, punch-drunk. Darnell doesn’t think so.

“It’s an extraordinarily competitive TV landscape, and the hottest genre right now is reality,” Darnell said. “We had heard half a dozen pitches for boxing projects before ‘The Contender,’ and I did two (celebrity) boxing shows. So you’re bound to have competing projects. May the best man win.”

CAA-repped Paul Buccieri and Joe Livecchi, both of whom are based at Endemol, will exec produce “Champ,” with Endemol’s Eugene Young supervising for the company.

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