The bidding for unscripted television shows hit new heights Friday when NBC agreed to pay a record $2 million-plus for each episode of a new boxing-themed show created by "reality" TV maestro Mark Burnett.
The deal for "The Contender" is the most ever paid for a first-year unscripted series, raising questions about how the show can be profitable for the General Electric Co.-owned network.
Much of the appeal of earlier unscripted shows was that they cost the networks relatively little, offsetting the rising cost of scripted dramas and comedies. But the fee for "The Contender" is close to what many hourlong network dramas cost.
Because unscripted shows typically don't show in repeats or off-network syndication, the network as well as Burnett and his fellow executive producers -- "Rocky" star Sylvester Stallone and DreamWorks SKG partner Jeffrey Katzenberg -- will be under pressure to maximize ad sales.
"The Contender" is counting on Stallone's star power to attract an audience. Even with his on-screen participation, however, the show also will face the challenge of making the at-times corrupt business of boxing palatable to prime-time audiences.
The venture represents another win for Burnett, who created the groundbreaking reality series "Survivor." The deal also solidifies his relationship with NBC, where the producer credited for creating the reality genre now will have four shows.
Burnett's second installment of "The Restaurant" will air this spring, and casting for the second season of "The Apprentice" -- with Donald Trump returning -- has begun. Burnett also is developing a 13-episode scripted series for NBC based on castaways on an island, a topic close to his "Survivor" heart.
"There are certain tent-pole producers, in certain genres, that demand premium license fees because they deliver ratings successes," said an NBC executive who asked not to be identified. "In the reality business, you have Mark Burnett. With his track record, you are willing to pay a premium because this could potentially be a very lucrative business to be in, even at the high licensing fee we're paying for an unscripted show."
Burnett's high-priced deal includes an advertising barter component, through which he will buy six spots per episode from NBC and sell them, the NBC executive said. Burnett was traveling Friday and could not be reached for comment.
Burnett and Katzenberg pitched "The Contender" this week to executives at ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Although all four networks said they were interested in the show, only NBC was willing to grant Burnett the ad barter deal, sources at the other networks said.
Bids from the other networks ranged from $1.5 million an episode from ABC to nearly $2 million from Fox, according to sources at the networks.
"The Contender," which is slated for midseason next year, will feature 16 amateur boxers who will train on camera and compete in fights. The loser from each week will be kicked out of training camp, Burnett said this week. Viewers will get to know the contestants intimately by being exposed to their lives outside the ring.
"We want to clean up and add some transparency to a sport that everybody used to love, like in the old days" of Muhammad Ali, said Burnett, a boxing fanatic.
"Like all my other shows, this one will be filmed like a drama, a movie, and will deal with authentic core values.... Boxing becomes the metaphor for fighting for what you most want."