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A twist in TV reality wars

Competing show proposals hope to find on-air replacements for deceased pop stars.

June 24, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

First, they dueled over billionaires. Then they fought over boxing. Now comes the battle of the bands.

Stepping squarely into the high-stakes game of chicken that is reality TV, Fox Television Studios is risking war with one of the genre's hottest producers, Mark Burnett, over rival music shows.

Fox Television Studios -- the News Corp. production unit that is also behind "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Shield" -- has clinched a deal with the formerly chart-topping R&B group TLC for an unscripted series, according to sources familiar with the situation. The show would feature contestants competing to replace band member Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, who was killed in a car crash in 2002. The winner would then join the trio's surviving members, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, for recordings and possibly a televised concert.

But Burnett, famed for his work on CBS' hit unscripted series "Survivor," has his own tragedy-stricken group that needs headhunting help. Wednesday afternoon, CBS announced it has closed a deal with the producer to pick up his new reality series, "Rock Star," which promises to find a lead singer for the '80s band INXS, whose frontman Michael Hutchence died in 1997.

"Rock Star" will debut in the summer of 2005, airing two hours per week. Although details remain sketchy on how the show will be formatted, it is expected to include performances and an elimination component.

Neither show has a premiere date, or even a network commitment, but both sides are already trading licks. In an interview Tuesday, Burnett dismissed the TLC project as the latest attempt to duplicate one of his efforts. He complained that his NBC smash "The Apprentice," with real estate mogul Donald Trump, is spawning imitations from Fox (with billionaire Richard Branson) and ABC (billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) and his coming NBC boxing series with Sylvester Stallone, "The Contender," is likewise inspiring a similar effort from Fox, tentatively titled "The Next Great Boxing Champ."

"It just makes me laugh," Burnett said of the TLC project. "If I decide to produce a show called 'Dog ... ,' I'll get a call saying there's a new show someone's doing" with the same concept. "All I can do is do good work," he added.

Fox Television Studios declined to comment. But one executive close to the TLC deal said that Fox was already negotiating with the group by the time Burnett began discussing "Rock Star" in media interviews earlier this month. Indeed, the studio had mulled working with other bands -- including Queen, the rock quartet whose lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died in 1991 -- before settling on TLC as a suitably contemporary option. Taking a swipe at Burnett's project, the executive added: "I don't think anyone cares about INXS anymore."

This is hardly the first time reality producers have squared off over similar-sounding shows -- indeed, many producers have grown paranoid about revealing even broad outlines of new unscripted projects, for fear that rivals will steal their ideas. This time around, though, the grudge match is particularly rich with big egos and seething rivalries, not to mention the built-in spectacle of the music business itself.

The music face-off is the latest wrinkle in Burnett's tangled relations with Fox. In addition to the flap over the rival boxing series, the producer had a tense relationship with Fox Broadcasting over the editing of his summer reality series, "The Casino" (although corporate cousins, the Fox broadcast network is an otherwise wholly separate entity from Fox Television Studios).

Ironically, though, "Rock Star" itself could be viewed as a derivative show. Burnett's project is widely interpreted within the TV business as a slap at Fox's smash hit "American Idol," a pop singing contest in which a group of young contestants is whittled away by judges and phone-in votes until a winner is crowned during the finale.

Fox Television Studios wrapped its deal with TLC late Tuesday and has not yet offered the concept to networks.

As for "Rock Star," Burnett said that his deal with INXS -- the Australian band that had hits with "Listen Like Thieves," "Need You Tonight" and "Suicide Blonde" -- gives him a piece of any revenue the newly reconstituted band earns through touring and recording. He's also lining up other rock bands in hopes of securing a multi-year deal for the show.

That "Rock Star" is going to CBS, whose audience typically skews older, comes as something of a surprise. Several agents and managers speculated earlier that ABC is the most logical buyer for "Rock Star," since the low-rated network failed to clinch a deal for "The Apprentice" when Burnett pitched it last year. The series became a huge hit on NBC. But one ABC insider said, "We are stalled for a number of reasons" over "Rock Star."

Burnett said Tuesday, before the CBS deal closed, that the negotiations were time-consuming because they involve complicated financial commit- ments.

He was, however, clear on one point: The competing TLC project won't derail "Rock Star."

"There's absolutely no chance of that," he said. "People know what they're buying with me."

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