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How Esquire Network Was Sold on ‘Fight Club’-Like Reality Web Series

NBCUniversal’s new male-skewing cabler to premiere “White Collar Brawlers” Nov. 19

TV execs usually have little more than a pilot to work from in deciding whether to pick up a show.

With “White Collar Brawlers,” Esquire Network head of original programming Matt Hanna had an entire 23-episode short-form web series to review — along with audience reaction to the spectacle of two friends punching each other in the face in a boxing ring.

White Collar Brawlers,” pitting one pair of amateur pugilists in each of six episodes, will bow Nov. 19 on NBCUniversal’s Esquire Network. The one-hour reality show is based on the 2010 web series of the same name created by and starring coworkers Kai Hasson and Nate Houghteling. The duo, founders of online video production firm Portal A, explored their friendship through the process of training for a showdown in the ring.

While the web would seem to be an ideal proving grounds for TV, online video has only rarely migrated to the tube. In the case of “White Collars Brawlers,” the concept’s previous Internet run made all the difference, according to Hanna.

“The fact that these two guys had gone out and done this made a huge difference. That really sold us on the concept,” he said. “On paper, I’m not sure we would have taken a bite.”

Portal A released “White Collar Brawlers” episodes online within two days of live action as the storyline of Hasson and Houghteling’s training and ultimate bout unfolded over three months. The series garnered more than 2.5 million views on YouTube and Blip. For the final fight at a gym in Berkeley, Calif., the producers sold $20-$50 tickets and attracted 1,300 attendees.

“When you see something that’s been done, you can look at it and see: ‘Wow, those guys look like they learned something,’” Hanna said.

Hasson and Houghteling had unsuccessfully shopped the concept to TV networks until they teamed with production company Authentic Entertainment. The partners pitched Esquire Network earlier this year; the cabler greenlit “White Collar Brawlers” in April and production started in the spring. (Authentic also co-produces the network’s cooking competition show “Knife Fight” with Flower Films.)

Hasson echoed the point that having the web series “proof of concept” was key. “We could show there was an audience that understood what was going on,” he said.

Of course, the fledgling Esquire Network is prepared to take more risks than other TV nets as it fights to gain viewers. NBCU launched Esquire Network Sept. 23, replacing distaff-oriented Style Network. (Previously, it had planned to convert G4 into Esquire Network in April, delaying the launch to build up more series.)

The network is focused on reality and nonfiction programming, targeted at “educated males” 18-49. And “White Collar Brawlers” lined up well with Hanna’s overall programming strategy: “This was a way for us to take guys we want to watch our network and put them through a transformational life experience…. We want to ask viewers, If you were in the same situation would you rise to the occasion?”

Esquire Network’s November debuts include three other series and a special: “Risky Listing,” docu-series set in the world of New York nightlife real estate; “How I Rock It,” style program hosted by Baron Davis; “Alternate Route,” about people, places and things that embody the American spirit; and one-hour special “Women We Love” based on the magazine’s franchise feature.

“Of the shows we’ve put into production, ‘White Collar Brawlers’ definitely gets the biggest reaction,” Hanna said. “It’s humorous, but there’s also something romantic about the sweet science of boxing.”

The TV show follows each pair of fighters over six weeks as they train with amateur boxing coaches at two gyms: Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the 3rd Avenue Boxing Gym in Pittsburgh.

“White Collar Brawlers” is exec produced by Lauren Lexton, Tom Rogan and J.C. Begley, while Hasson, Houghteling and Portal A co-founder Zach Blume are listed as co-executive producers.

Houghteling, by the way, won the original fight. But both he and his one-time sparring partner have sworn off boxing for good. Said Hasson: “The truth is, after the experience — as much as I love the show — I never want to fight another human being again.”

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