Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

The Contender has been hyped for months.

When Fox decided to go ahead and launch its bad, copy cat series, The Next Great Champ, people associated with the NBC show were angry enough to sue. But it didn’t matter much because after several low-rated episodes on the broadcast network, it got moved to Fox Sports Net, which garners about as many viewers in an average day as a 3 a.m. infomercial on the Style Network.

At that point, it was as if NBC executives completely wiped the slate clean and said “OK, that little debacle is over. We can continue pumping the hell out of our series.”

So, they did.

And finally, the time has come for The Contender to prove whether it’s worth all the hype and excitement that NBC seems to think it is.

After the first three episodes airing in the last seven days, it’s time to ask one of the immortal questions about a new television series:

Do ratings determine whether a show is successful?

Because if they do, then the news headline writers have already determined this show to be a failure:

— “Contender takes a 1-2 punch” (CNN, 3/8/05)

— “NBC’s Contender trails in 1st round” (Chicago Tribune, 3/9/05)

— “CBS KOs ContenderAgain Thursday” (Zap2it.com, 3/11/05)

Why the harsh headlines? Because a show that is produced by Mark Burnett (The Apprentice, Survivor), stars a Hollywood A-Lister like Sly Stallone and is hyped on a major broadcast network for months should average more than 8.5 million viewers per episode, which is approximately where it is according to the ratings reports from the first two episodes.

Then again, thanks to the wonderful worlds of public relations and statistical manipulation, 8.5 million viewers could seem like a gold mine and NBC has chosen to look at it that way according to an article in the New York Daily News.

In the article, NBC spokeswoman, Rebecca Marks offered up the following fluff:

This is a show targeted to a particular audience. It’s exactly where we anticipated it would be. In terms of ratings, it’s right on target.

The good thing is we’ve got the young male demographic that’s so elusive to advertisers, and we’re thrilled with that.

Apparently, she’s right. Loads of males 18-34 tuned in. So, it’s not like she’s blatantly lying. It’s just obvious she’s a moron if she expects the public to believe that the network is perfectly happy with a paltry 8.5 million people watching the boxing reality drama every week — a show that costs an estimated $2 million per episode to produce.

So, if NBC remains consistent with Marks’ published perspective, it would appear that no matter what hundreds of other headlines across the media say, the ratings don’t necessarily determine a successful show.

But in the case of The Contender, the ratings may be right. No matter how hard Mark Burnett, Sly Stallone and NBC try, this series just doesn’t seem to have the title of “blockbuster reality show” attached to it.

The point of the show and its execution certainly isn’t terrible. Any show that can feature people engaging in physical confrontations where the winner isn’t pre-determined is bound to attract interest. It’s the whole reason the National Football League probably has more money than the entire continent of Africa.

And like a typical competition reality show, especially one developed by Mark Burnett, physical confrontations are the primary point of the show.

The show started with 16 middleweight boxers and their quest to thrust themselves into the limelight to get a big time title fight or at least a big time payday. Of course, the show’s premise can’t feature an every-man-for-himself competition. It’s hard to keep order and it’s harder to get behind certain competitors.

So, the way Survivor has its crazy tribe names and The Apprentice goes “Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts,” The Contender split the 16 up into two teams of eight and are split up according to “east vs. west” based on hometown. In the beginning, with that many competitors, it’s pretty important to establish that team dynamic. That’s true because since viewers don’t know who to root for, the generic, rather meaningless teams, help the viewers establish a connection with one side or another while also getting to know the players and pick “favorites” (and the guys they hate too).

Since the East vs. West competition has been established, the layout of each episode becomes fairly simple. The two teams battle in various physical tasks and the winning team gets a reward of some kind and gets to choose the elimination fight that takes place at the end of each episode. Of course, the choosing of the fighters is pretty meaningless since, unlike Survivor and Tribal Council and The Apprentice and the board room, the contestants want to be in the ring to show what they’ve got. And why not? Unlike those other reality shows, they hold their fate in their hands/gloves”¦

The end of each episode features that dramatic fight between the two boxers, one from the west and the other from the east. In this case, it’s a fully sanctioned five-round middleweight fight. The winner each week advances to the final 8 and the loser symbolically hangs up his gloves and walks out of The Contender gym.

As Burnett and his production team usually do, they’ve done a good job with the editing and choosing some of the more magnetic personalities to devote a lot of camera time to. They’ve found the best personalities and done a good enough job to promote the dramatic final segment that it’s actually exciting and nerve wracking watching that final fight sequence and heart wrenching when the loser has to go home.

Unfortunately, the show is fundamentally flawed in two significant ways.

First, as part of trying to play to the hype of this show supposedly being “the next great human drama,” they lay the human interest aspects of the show REALLY THICK.

As part of the show, each fighter has their families out there with them staying in another house away from the group’s training center. Just about all of them are young guys with young, beautiful wives and young, adorable children who love their daddy no matter what.

That’s noble and all, but the direction merely exploits the family aspect and completely beats a dead horse starting with sequences where the fighters interact with their families, down to the quick camera shots during the final fight which usually alternate between the ring, the wife, the kid(s) if they’re not on the mothe’s lap and reaction shots from Stallone and the other celebrity involved in the show, “Sugar” Ray Leonard. At one point during the second episode, the director even had the nerve to position a camera right on a fighte’s wife’s pregnant belly as she gently rubbed her hands over it. Why not just run a crawl across the bottom of the screen that says “If you’re going to get emotional, this is the time”¦” or even “Cry now?”

Combine that with the ultra cheesy theme music that appears to have been ripped off from Gladiator and likely to play in sports arenas everywhere and it all feels a bit too much. The production team is trying too hard to invoke emotions that should come naturally.

Second, it appears that Burnett and NBC have significantly overestimated the (popular) cultural value of the main aspects and draws of this show.

That starts with the sport of boxing. If this were any time before “Buster” Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in 1991, the show might have more appeal since the United States always seemed to have some sort of strange love affair with the sport and its heavyweight champion was always a major celebrity in American culture. But since then? The sport has been filled with controversy, a series of heavyweight fighters that have been either boring or about as qualified to be heavyweight champion as Pamela Anderson and a group of smaller, lighter boxers that may be talented and hungry, but about as marketable as a 1,000 page government study on the dangers of curse words in music recordings.

American sports and popular culture consumers may still love George Foreman and find Mike Tyson oddly appealing, but boxing as a whole is about is probably less important to the average fan than even hockey or men’s tennis. The fact that Burnett and NBC thought they could somehow rekindle the general interest of the sport ranks somewhere between naïve, foolish and cocky. They probably figured that since they made Donald Trump cool again, why not the sport of boxing?

And even if they weren’t considering that, instead thinking the lovely, supportive wives and adorable kids were enough to drag in the females and non-boxing fans to watch the show, that was probably a mistake too.

It also looks like Burnett and NBC have overvalued Sly Stallone’s importance to the popular culture lexicon as well. He may be a cult hero to many people still, but he hasn’t played Rocky Balboa, the boxer, since 1990 and hasn’t played him well since 1985. Plus, his filmography since he played Rocky reads more like a guy struggling for work and accepting just about any role he can get, not the A-Lister he’s supposed to be. We’ll always remember Rambo and Rocky fondly, but we, as a society, have moved on since the ’80s and found other movie stars to fawn all over.

And as wonderful as a man as “Sugar” Ray Leonard is, his role in the show seems forced, unnecessary and largely irrelevant. He appears to be there just to be Stallone’s soft, mild-mannered administrative assistant who occasionally gets into the ring to spar with the young pups. Was the general public really that anxious to see how “Sugar” Ray was doing? And, despite his boxing background, is he really that big of a draw? Hell, if they are going to offer extraneous roles to people out there, I was curious about how Corey and Topanga from Boy Meets World were doing. Maybe we can get them in the ring too?

Taking away Stallone’s and Leonard’s involvement in the show, the premise still comes back to boxing, a sport struggling to maintain any sort of interest from the American public. The production team has done a good job of focusing on the more interesting personalities through the first three episodes. But all they’ve really done is try too hard to secure a diverse audience for a show about a sport only die hard fans care about. All they did was include gratuitous camera shots of supporting wives and cute children and use some cheesy, dramatic symphonic music that could easily end up on a new “Jock Jams” compilation CD in the background.

Then they went ahead and claimed the small, mostly male, audience was what they were looking for the whole time?

Nice try guys. I’m not buying what you’re selling and I’m not recommending that my readers tune in to The Contender either”¦

— Coogan