Fox hits Virgin territory

Branson to take would-be billionaires on whirlwind world tour

Fox has a message for Virgin CEO Richard Branson: You’re hired!

Net has greenlit production on “Branson’s Big Adventure” (working title) an hourlong reality skein in which the colorful billionaire will search for “an extraordinary individual who has the right stuff to follow in his footsteps,” according to Fox reality topper Mike Darnell.

While the comparison to NBC’s runaway hit “The Apprentice” is obvious, Fox execs said their skein isn’t a clone of Mark Burnett’s creation.

“This isn’t about selling a glass of lemonade,” Darnell said, a reference to the first challenge in “The Apprentice.”

Skein, which will tape over six weeks, will have Branson taking a group of young would-be billionaires on a whirlwind tour of the world. As they jet around the globe, they’ll relive some of Branson’s own colorful business and personal adventures — and face the same sort of business dilemmas Branson faced on his path to wealth.

“We’re talking about epic storytelling here,” Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman told Daily Variety. “If we were looking for someone to show younger people how to do it with adventure and flair, (Branson) is the guy to do it.”

“He will undoubtedly have many life lessons to share,” Berman said.

Branson will eliminate one of the contestants each week, leaving them on an airport tarmac as the remaining players set off on their next mission. Execs are keeping mum about the final payoff and how the winner will be selected.

“In six weeks, these people will experience challenges and adventures beyond their wildest imagination,” Darnell said. “It’s not about business acumen. It’s really about finding someone to follow in his footsteps. It’s about judgment and morality and loyalty tests that don’t have anything to do with how many sweaters you can sell.

“Without getting into the rules, the motivations and everything else about the show is different (than ‘The Apprentice,’ ” Darnell added. “And Richard will be extraordinarily involved, more so than you’ve seen in other shows.”

As for how “Branson’s Big Adventure” wraps, Darnell said simply: “It’s a big big ending. I’m not going any further.”

Skein joins “The Apprentice” and ABC’s upcoming Mark Cuban starrer “The Benefactor” in giving billionaires a reality showcase.

Lori Levin-Hyams, Laura Fuest and Tod Dahlke created the skein and will exec produce along with Branson.

Levin-Hyams said Branson was actually approached about appearing on a future installment of NBC’s “The Apprentice.” Indeed, Branson’s private island was the final stop on the latest installment of “Today’s” annual “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” stunt.

“But we thought, Why should we do what someone else has done when we can do something fun and different and unlike anything else?” she said. “And Fox is the perfect match in terms of brands. We think alike, we walk alike, we talk alike.”

While the show is still taking shape, it’s a safe bet contestants will have to engage in some of the daredevil style adventures for which Branson is known. CEO has made around-the-world trips in hot air balloons and set speed records for crossing oceans.

On the business side, after founding the Virgin Records label, Branson expanded the brand exponentially. He created the “megastore” retailing concept, along with Virgin lines of book and software publishing, travel, theaters, financial services and, in 1984, Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Skein was put together by Rebel Entertainment Partners.

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