Last week’s rollout of NBC’s highly anticipated reality boxing series “The Contender” took a one-two punch to its special debuts on Monday and Thursday, raising questions about whether the heavily promoted show will become the programming phenomenon its creators predicted. “The Contender’s” initial performance also raises doubts about whether it is the show that will help NBC get a ratings leg up in the highly competitive seasonal race for adults 18 to 49.
In its Monday night 84-minute premiere, “Contender” scored a 4.0 rating in the adults 18 to 49 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was down 17 percent from the time period season average for regularly scheduled NBC shows. Competitively, “Contender,” which is produced by Mark Burnett Productions, DreamWorks Television and Rogue Marble, beat the second half of ABC’s reality special “Boss Swap” in the 9:30 p.m. (ET) half-hour (4.0 versus 2.8) and came in over ABC’s 10 p.m. offering “Supernanny” (3.8). But CBS beat “Contender” in adults 18 to 49 at 9:30 p.m. with “Two and a Half Men” (5.5) and at 10 p.m. with “CSI: Miami” (7.3). The second half of Fox’s “24” at 9:30 p.m. also eclipsed the boxing show in the demo with a 5.3.
The show did best among men 18 to 34, scoring a 4.4 rating, a third-place finish for the night behind Fox’s “American Idol” (6.3) and “CSI: Miami” (4.6). In the key adult demos, the male audience was larger than the female audience by an average of 14 percent. “Contender” was not a knockout compared with other NBC Monday night premieres this season (see chart).
On Thursday in the “ER” time period, “Contender” fared better, scoring a 4.7 rating in the demo, beating ABC’s “primetime>live,” which got a 2.1, but losing to CBS’s “Without a Trace” (7.6). “Trace” swept the 10 p.m. block in all adult demos, except for men 18 to 34, the demo in which “Contender” prevailed with a 4.9. The show was down 38 percent season to date for the 10 p.m. time period and down 24 percent from the previous week’s preview of “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” (6.2). It was also down 30 percent from its lead-in, “The Apprentice,” another Mark Burnett production.
Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling, said the network was pleased with the show’s initial performance.
“We aired it twice and achieved the goal of getting the program sampled,” he said. “It was really encouraging to see the growth from Monday to Thursday.”
Mr. Metcalf said the “The Contender’s” initial performance in men 18 to 34 bodes well for the show, which he hopes will build once it moves to Sunday. Monday nights have been a challenge for NBC recently, and Thursday, once virtually owned by the network, is now a much more competitive landscape.
“It is going to bring the core audience it found and expand from there,” he said of “Contender” on Sundays. “That’s going to be the bottom line for success for the show.”
Bruce Goerlich, executive VP and director of strategic resources for Zenith Media, said the improvement from Monday to Thursday in the demo was welcome.
“If I was NBC, I wouldn’t get too disappointed yet,” he said. “It is always good when a show shows growth, and that’s what they are showing.”
“Contender’s” Monday and Thursday night debut previews and Sunday time period premiere at 8 p.m. come after months of impressive deal-making, media hype, network controversy and even fractious litigation.
When Mr. Burnett, fresh off the success of “The Apprentice,” first pitched the show early last year, networks lined up to bid on the project. The cachet of having Sylvester Stallone and a partnership with DreamWorks only added to the appeal. But Fox’s announcement that it was developing a boxing show with former welterweight champion Oscar de la Hoya threw a wrench into NBC’s works. “Contender,” initially scheduled for November, found itself being upstaged by “The Next Great Champ,” which Fox said it was putting on its schedule in September.
DreamWorks and Mr. Burnett sued Fox and “Champ” production companies Endemol USA and Lock & Key, alleging the companies violated state boxing regulations to get the show on the air by September. NBC declined to sue, while the “Contender” camp decided against naming Mr. de la Hoya’s production company, Golden Boy Promotions, in its suit.
On Aug. 27, a judge denied NBC’s request and ruled Fox could air “Champ,” setting the stage for its September debut. “Champ” aired Tuesday, Sept. 7, only to be eclipsed by the second episode of DreamWorks’ animated series “Father of the Pride.” Within weeks a ratings-challenged “Champ” was off Fox’s prime-time schedule, and in October NBC announced it was moving “Contender” to January. In a press release NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said the move to midseason allowed for a “proper platform in January apart from the distractions of the fall.” Then a month before the premiere, one of the “Contender’s” contestants was found dead, apparently a suicide.
From an advertising perspective, “Contender” couldn’t have been more high profile (“Burnett Ups Ante for Placement,” TVWeek, Sept. 20, 2004). In September Mr. Burnett secured $1 million-plus product integration deals from Toyota, PepsiCo and Home Depot, giving the companies’ logos and names placement on the boxing ring pads and each a major presence in one specific episode. The deal included traditional spot buys starting at $3.5 million for the entire season. Mr. Burnett also has the rare distinction of owning some of the advertising time that runs during “Contender.”
In a season-long race for the top spot in adults 18 to 49, NBC, last year’s No. 1 in the demo, is currently in fourth place with a 3.7, behind CBS and Fox (tied with a 4.0) and a resurgent ABC (3.9). In that kind of a race, one well-positioned hit could make the difference between fourth and first. “Trial by Jury” opened to promising numbers, while NBC is gearing up for the time-period premiere of the American version of the BBC comedy “The Office” on March 29 and the supernatural drama “Revelations” on April 13.
“It would be unfair to put the burden on any one show to be the breakout,” Mr. Metcalf said, “but any network is one hit away from bursting out of party.”