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They're so money

Billionaire Mark Cuban. Billionaire Donald Trump. Make way for a network battle of dueling realities.

September 06, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

He's younger, hipper and has less alarming hair. Now Mark Cuban is about to find out if he can trump the Donald as a TV star.

Cuban, Internet billionaire and feisty owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, is host and star of ABC's latest reality series, "The Benefactor," in which he leads a group of competitors through a series of on-the-fly character tests in a battle for $1 million.

The concept sounds suspiciously similar to that of NBC's smash "The Apprentice." But Cuban is hardly a Donald Trump clone, on screen or off. This is a 46-year-old guy who screams at NBA referees like a Little League dad gone berserk and shows up for business meetings in ripped jeans and goofy T-shirts.

"I could have been one of those 16 contestants," the Dallas-based tycoon marveled during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "Why have I been able to get to this level? Luck, skill -- what?"

Maybe it has something to do with his self-promotional chops. Already he's figured out how to make mischief in plugging "Benefactor," which starts next Monday. He insists that any similarity between his show and "Apprentice," which returns for a second season Thursday, is coincidental. But Cuban -- who until now has been a hero mainly to tech geeks and sports junkies -- clearly enjoys elevating his public profile by flicking verbal spitballs at Trump, the 58-year-old tycoon whose own celebrity has been rejuvenated by the NBC show.

"He's certainly done a good job branding himself," Cuban said of his rival mogul. "I just love to tweak him in the press, though, because he's not that media savvy. He's really not. And he takes the bait all the time."

To help sell "Benefactor" to a meeting of TV critics in July, ABC trotted out a promotional clip in which Cuban jokingly suggested he could afford to write "Benefactor's" $1-million prize check far more easily than Trump could. The Donald -- plagued by heavily publicized financial woes at his casino operations -- was not amused, and Cuban received e-mails from a Trump attorney threatening legal action.

Cuban, who initially told reporters he regretted the prank promo, grew defiant. "I had my lawyer tell his that if he wanted to find out who was more liquid and had more cash, we could do it publicly and let everyone know," Cuban said in an e-mail. "I figured ... it would be entertaining to find out if he reads his balance sheet as accurately as he reads the TV ratings."

Reached by phone, Trump expertly pivoted to counterspin mode, hedging the question of whether he actually intended to sue Cuban. "I'm much richer than Mark and I obviously have a much better television show, but nevertheless I hope he does really well with his show," Trump said. Keeping the focus on himself, Trump added that Cuban "must like me because he bought an apartment in one of my buildings on Central Park West."

Retorted Cuban: "Typical Donald Trump. He has never seen my show, but that never stops him from pretending to know what he is talking about."

No matter who delivers the best lines, it remains that Trump is that rarest of creatures, a proven prime-time star. So far, Cuban is just one of the nation's few hundred billionaires. Can "Benefactor" change that?

ABC better hope it can. Trying to cash in on Cuban's notoriety among sports fans, the low-rated network is pairing the eight episodes of "Benefactor" with "Monday Night Football," ABC's most-watched program. But that means the Cuban show will confront a difficult scheduling issue. In much of the country, "Benefactor" airs at 8 p.m. Eastern time, leading into football. But West Coast viewers won't see the program until after the game is over at 10 p.m. -- right opposite CBS' hit crime drama "CSI: Miami." As Andrea Wong, executive vice president of alternative programming, specials and late night for ABC Entertainment, said, "There's no question it's a tough time period."

The hope is that, just as viewers were lured by Trump's vaudevillian take on a scowling corporate alpha male, they will be similarly taken by Cuban's mix of approachability and swagger. Cuban "doesn't necessarily seem like someone who would be successful at life," said David Young, the London-based creator and executive producer of "Benefactor." "He didn't necessarily go to the right schools, didn't necessarily get the right education."

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