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‘Contender’ takes a hit

Reality skein still in the ring

NBC avoided a first-round knockout Monday with its unscripted foray into the boxing ring, but “The Contender” will need to pack more of a ratings punch if it’s going to come close to justifying its hefty pricetag.

In the first of two midweek preview episodes before settling into its regular Sunday timeslot, “The Contender” was roughed up by competish on CBS and Fox but did exhibit some signs of life — placing second or third in most demographics and narrowly leading its time period among young men.

In other premiere news, Showtime’s Kirstie Alley-led laffer “Fat Actress” opened with some ratings heft on Monday, while HBO’s “Deadwood” launched its second season Sunday with solid numbers.

As for NBC’s “Contender,” the Mark Burnett/DreamWorks Television series about 16 boxing hopefuls is believed to be the most expensive reality series to date at a reported budget of $2 million per episode. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sylvester Stallone also exec produce, with Stallone and former boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard serving as hosts.

Expectations for the skein have been all over the map, at first extremely high last year when the Peacock outbid other networks for the series rights, and then considerably lower four months ago when Fox’s copycat skein, “The Next Great Champ,” opened weakly last fall and never got up off the ratings mat.

Even as many insiders expressed doubts about the ratings potential for a primetime boxing reality series, few were willing to count out Burnett, who struck gold with “Survivor” on CBS and has also found success with “The Apprentice” on NBC.

According to Nielsen nationals for Monday, “The Contender” (9:36-11 p.m.) averaged a 4.0 rating/10 share in adults 18-49 and 8.1 million viewers overall. Numbers repped a slight build in demos on the show’s lead-in from “Fear Factor” (3.8/9 in 18-49, 9.34m) but put it on the low end for recent reality-show preems on the Peacock.

NBC has averaged a 5.9 rating in 18-49 Mondays at 10 this winter with new hit drama “Medium.”

“Contender” placed third in the 9:30 half-hour (behind CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and Fox’s “24”) and then ran second in most demos from 9 to 10 — well behind CBS’ “CSI: Miami” (7.3/18 in 18-49, 21.68m) but ahead of ABC’s “Supernanny” (3.8/9, 9.01m).

In all key adult categories, “Contender” grew in the final half-hour, when the boxing action takes place. By 10:30, it pulled to within 3 shares of “CSI: Miami” in adults 18-34 and also eked out a narrow victory in men 18-34 (4.9/15 vs. 4.8/14). (Among femmes, though, “Miami” more than doubled “The Contender.”)

Second round

Show, whose premiere date was pushed back several times by NBC, will air another preview seg on Thursday at 10 following “The Apprentice” before bowing Sunday at 8 in its regular slot.

That time period figures to be tough, as much of what has been cheered in reviews of “The Contender” — its underdog tales of hope and heart — is exactly what viewers get from ABC’s feel-good mega-smash “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which airs in the same slot. Also, Fox’s “The Simpsons” remains a strong draw among young men.

Still, the skedding minimizes the risk for NBC, which has struggled Sundays at 8 this season with drama “American Dreams,” At the same time, the slot allows it a chance to quietly pick up ratings steam the next couple of months. If “Contender” averages a 3 demo rating on Sunday, it would be an improvement for NBC — although a costly one.

Elsewhere Monday, Fox dominated at 8 with another special “American Idol” (10.1/26 in 18-49, 23.91m) and was also tops in most demos at 9 with “24” (5.6/13 in 18-49, 13.09m). CBS led at 9:30 with “Two and a Half Men” (5.5/13 in 18-49, 17.45m).

Big, ‘Fat’ beginning

On Showtime, “Fat Actress” (924,000 viewers) got off to a big start for Showtime, drawing roughly four times the net’s primetime average aud and double the number of people who tuned in to the premiere of “Huff.”

Paybox execs say the series posted a 4.16 household rating among Showtime homes, its highest rating in the category since the 2000 bow of “Queer as Folk.”

“Fat Actress” numbers fall just short of series premieres for “The L Word” (936,000 viewers) and “Dead Like Me” (1.1 million), though figures for the latter were measured before Nielsen Media Research last January imposed a measurement system that separates viewership figures from a net’s primary feed from its multiplexed spinoffs.

Tally for the Alley starrer also does not account for the millions of non-Showtime subscribers who had access to the show during the cabler’s free preview weekend. The 11 p.m. repeat reached more than 400,000.

Elsewhere Monday, Lifetime attracted 3.69 million viewers and a 5 national share in women 18-49 to the original movie “Lies My Mother Told Me,” starring Joely Richardson.

And Sunday, the second-season bow of HBO’s “Deadwood” drew a respectable 2.79 million total viewers — down 38% from season one’s average but healthy considering the absence of its “Sopranos” lead-in. A new seg of “Carnivale” followed at 10 with a season-high 1.96 million viewers.

Also Sunday at 10, A&E premiered the reality series “Intervention” to 1.61 million viewers (1 million in the key 25-54 demo). Skein scored the highest-rated Sunday bow in A&E history among 18-49ers but didn’t match the demo mass of “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” which pulled in 1.9 million in the 25-54 bracket.

MTV’s 9:30 launch of “Damage Control” drew 1.49 million viewers.

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