'THE CONTENDER' PRESS CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2004

SYLVESTER STALLONE
Executive Producer

MARK BURNETT
Executive Producer

View video clips from the Conference: (WMP 9)
Burnett: The Show's Concept (4:47)
Burnett/Stallone: "The Contender" Offers an Opportunity (3:27)

JEFF ZUCKER: Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you for coming. As you all know, we're here today to -- for you to see the three-round bout between me and Mr. Katzenberg and you're going to have to tell us apart. Seriously, thank you for coming this afternoon. This is a great day for NBC as we talk a little bit about the next great quality project from NBC. You know, for years NBC has been the home of great quality television, and that's going to continue next year with a new show with one of the greatest names in this town, "The Contender," which comes to us from Mark Burnett, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Sylvester Stallone. And I can't tell you how excited we are about this project. You all know how this entertainment division has great programming, as I said, whether it's a great program from John Wells or Dick Wolf or Mark Burnett, that's what we stand for. And "The Contender" is about to join that great long line and list of programs. This year Mark Burnett gave us "The Apprentice," and next he'll give us "The Contender." "The Contender" is simply to me about the American dream. And to tell you all about the program are the two men who will bring it to great new heights. Please welcome Mark Burnett and Sylvester Stallone.

MARK BURNETT: Thank you, and thanks Eminem. I want to say first of all that many things are happening right now. First off, these two guys over here, Katzenberg and Zucker are at a boxing gym. How funny is that? How funny is that?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: Hey, they're born fighters. They should be here.

MARK BURNETT: Let's sort of hear about "The Contender" here. Jeffrey Katzenberg called me many, many months ago and said, "We don't know each other, I'm affiliated with DreamWorks," so of course I was there in five minutes flat.
And he said, "Hey, do you like boxing?" And he realized that I love boxing. I grew up in a family and we watched boxing and growing up it was one of the best things in England. And to get into the British boxing, you must box. And I said to Sly when I first met him, it wasn't about necessarily being the best technical boxer, it was heart and soul. You get knocked down 15, 25 times, if you get up over and over, you get an extra chance to wear that red beret and those parachute wings. And I've learned so much from those days of heart and soul. And I had it. And I was part of that proud, proud unit. I've always loved boxing. And I told Mr. Katzenberg, the problem really is -- Jeffrey, is I haven't liked it in recent years. You know, growing up from loving it and now going right back to watching Henry Copper in England fighting in the alley, the rumbling, the jungle Thrilla in Manila, Sugar Ray Leonard on Pay Per View. And those days it was network TV even. It was just a great time. And while it will take nothing away from people in the ring still fighting professionally, I haven't enjoyed it as much. So the opportunity, you know, to put together an unscripted drama, to get an opportunity out there for fighters, I jumped at the chance. I knew what I did in this business, my little part for a living, which is unscripted drama with real people and, you know, a great, great opportunity in being given that chance -- and then, of course, who better to work with for me who has embodied the storytelling in the art of boxing is Sly.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: Thank you. Well, you know, I've always considered my life a million to one shot, and I'm no different than most people. But I think the odds have gone up in the late days. Now it is like 10,000 to one shot, 10 million to one shot. It's getting more and more difficult. And I've always had a real passion in my heart for people that didn't have the economic abilities and didn't have the advantages of some people, and the only thing that God has given them is a desire, their fist, the will to try to fight the way out of a situation. That isn't exactly the most pleasant in the world, but that perhaps would be their only opportunity. But what always has gotten me and, for example, with Rocky, it wasn't about boxing, it was about the people around them that gave him the reason to go on. Otherwise he was just a man drifting like so many people. But when they find a reason and someone who believes in them and the passion and the families, and that's what we really want to do, go behind the scenes. In "The Contender," fighting is obvious, yes. These men will have to face fear. They'll have to walk up these three steps alone which takes incredible bravery. Sometimes those three steps seem a lot higher than Mount Everest. It takes courage to climb those steps and to look across that ring and know they're truly alone. But the audience by this time will know a great deal about them, will have an emotional involvement with them, and win or lose, they will come away as winners because they had the opportunity to try to go their own particular distance to demolish their own demons. And if they have the ability, they move on to the next level. If not, they solve that particular mystery that I think haunts so many people in the world, and that is, I never got an opportunity. How good could I have been if I had had support from my family or if I had trained harder or if I had just been born with a bit more of a gift? But at least that mystery is solved and his life I believe will be a lot better from that point on because he's had the opportunity. And that's what I think most people in the world cry out for. It's not that everyone expects to be No. 1, but they just want to be part of the race, the competition to be contenders.

MARK BURNETT: And I think really, from the research we've done -- and, Sly knows so much as does Frank and his brother knows so much about this sport, that it's always improbable to get out of these gyms and go and get that break they're all trying to get. What we are doing is giving people a break here. We brought you guys, you know, you journalists from you Beverly Hills mansions downtown. I guess we're not really expecting many people from Beverly Hills mansions to apply for the show. It's these kids in the inner city. It's the farm kid from Iowa or the one picking sugarcane in Hawaii, or the one from Puerto Rico. And that's why we came to downtown Los Angeles where the heart and soul is, and they need that change to break through. Most other sports, you know, NBA, there are nine million scouts out there who know every single talent. But, you know, it's not the same way in boxing. It's thousands and thousands of young men that want their shot. This shot is their shot. If nothing else happens -- it's not a one-shot deal for us. This show, it will go on for a lot of years because, you know one thing, that I deliver when it comes down to unscripted dramas, the heart and soul. Any show that I am not totally congruent with -- and this I'm totally congruent with. This -- in 10 year's time, my kids are going to say, "Dad, thank you for giving back boxing that we never saw before." Because I know it exists and I know people are -- I was glued to network television when I was a kid and it's about time to bring it back.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: And I think, Mark, too, most of these kids are exploited I heard one time -- like some of the best actors you'll never see, some of the best writers you'll never have the ability to hear their words because working your way to the ranks you take an emotional toll, tons and tons and tons of rejection. You almost have to embrace rejection. And some people can't take it or their responsibilities fiscal responsibilities don't allow it. They can't do it. So they leave. They go on. They work in factories and they drive trucks or they do whatever to get by, but they had incredible talent -- but they just didn't have the opportunity. I think there is a great deal of mismanagement in boxing today. I think the finest talent does not rise to the surface. I think quite often the compromises that a fighter is to make through his managers to get in a position of competition is quite not worth it for them. So we have been, I think, deprived of some new fresh talent. And I know that the plan that Mark and Jeffrey have worked out is revolutionary. It's fair for these fighters I believe. And we welcome you all to step forward who believe have been not given a fair shake, who believe they do have the talent. This door is now wide open again for you to have the opportunity to walk through it.

MARK BURNETT: And the last thing -- I know everyone has some questions -- is that it's -- on NBC.com, there is a place to go to apply. So, you know, if you're a fighter out there who never could break through a different bureaucracy, see whatever is going on stopping you from getting through that artificial ceiling, there now is a way to apply. And we're going to be taking in the next few months traveling around the country giving people their fair shot. So if there are any questions for us, we'd be glad to answer.

Q. I assume that based on "The Apprentice,” that Sly is going to be the Donald Trump?

MARK BURNETT: He's not far from it.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: I'm going to be Donald Thump.

Q. Next question is: Will the cast of “Frasier” be replaced with your knockouts?

MARK BURNETT: One thing that won't be on this show -- we talked a lot about this -- is there won't be any humiliation of anybody because -- Sly was -- is very, very clear on that.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: I mean, guys, I -- perhaps, you have never walked into a ring. It's a terrifying experience. It really is. Because you are completely exposed. You are exposed by the bombardment of negativity. If it is -- by the audience, you hear the shouts, you're expected to withstand the pain and fight back. So there are no real bums in this. It is a term that's been used and the -- it's kind of like something that's been attached down through the years of somebody that doesn't really put out. But whatever it takes to get into that ring to me took a great deal of bravery and we would never undermine them. We would never try to hurt their pride by just saying you know what, you're finished, you've lost, try another job, you just don't have it. Because they can have it. But that one moment, that one day, that one second, they don't -- they slip a punch and they have to go home and explain to their wives, you don't get it, I was that close. I was that close. And, you know, we want to at least give people -- to give them a chance to get that close. But there will be some very, very sad situations in this because you will grow hopefully to know these people and their families. And when the time comes for them to have to move on, it's going to take an emotional toll. And I think that's important for people to understand the real grandeur and the tragedy and the triumphs of this incredible sport.

Q. Is this going to be for males only or will women as well be involved?

MARK BURNETT: Well, for the show in the ring -- it will be males only in the ring.

Q. No women boxers?

MARK BURNETT: We'll let you fight.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: What if all the men lost, you know, this would be a series that we would call "The Pretenders," you know, a whole different show.

Q. What about criteria? Other than being in boxing, are you going to have the criteria of a certain personality, good looking, what kind of criteria?

MARK BURNETT: I think the No. 1 thing is that people are always saying, why are my shows working and others are not. It's the authenticity and the congruency that only -- on "The Apprentice," for example, there are pretty girls, but they all were brilliant and took no prisoners and were all successful. Most of them have taken a pay cut to get the job with Trump. Actually they're all really smart in this show. The No. 1 priority is can you step in there and deliver? On top of that, certainly -- you know, that's what I said about days of “Survivor” -- great personality. Sugar Ray Leonard -- so the personality will be there. But the No. 1 priorities is not to give up. It's not casting. We're looking for real fighters who have real stories.

Q. Did they have to be amateurs or do they have to have no record in the past?

MARK BURNETT: By the time they come to the show, everyone will be a professional. Now, you can become a professional quite easy. We have a great scene behind it of lawyers and advisors because we've put together a very serious endeavor. And follow all over the rules. So by the time they come on the show -- because actually technically they'll be paid during the show and are fighting. So they are earning money to fight making it as a problem --

SYLVESTER STALLONE: Well, they will all be in one weight class.

MARK BURNETT: Yes. And we're not sure what that will be.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: Well, I think, of course, the most intriguing and the most popular is the heavyweight. And, of course, we'll inspect the amount of the available heavy weight material that we're picking up with the people involved in that. But then again, welter weight, which is the most exciting division -- it's a very energetic one with Oscar de la Hoya. And that is also something that will have to be inspected. Most likely it will be heavy weight, middle weight, which is 160; welter weight 147, and lightweight, which is 130. So we'll state it right in there. So there are about 16 divisions. But this show would be going on for eleven years.

Q. How far does the winner go? You know, on “American Idol,” you can get a real record contract. On “Survivor,” you are -- what alliances do you have with the professional world of the organized boxing?

MARK BURNETT: Just so you know, there won't be any alliances with any existing groups because we feel -- and they will continue and they'll be very happy. We will -- you know, we don't feel the need to -- for example, the winners of “American Idol” are not having a singing off against Whitney Houston, are they? They stand on their own. So what we see -- and our goal long term is to take the stars that emerge each year for “Contender” and take care of them, their health benefits, their training, and help them emerge. It is no good giving someone a carrot from an inner city or a farmer in Iowa -- giving them that chance on a TV show and go, if you have real talent, you'll emerge. You nurture these people giving them a chance.

JEFFREY KATZENBERG: The first prize --

MARK BURNETT: Oh, the first prize, the winner will be getting a one million -- a real chance that will change their life right now.

MARK BURNETT: Where do I sign up?

MARK BURNETT: And which is very appropriate. And the courage of being in that ring, it will be really up to them in a bunch of others. They are expecting to emerge. They will be given correct training and proper attention.

Q. For example, Kelly Clarkson was up for a grammy this year. So will these guys, if they win, ever be able to fight with, you know, the real fighters, if they show their talent?

MARK BURNETT: Well, first of all, I wouldn't use that terminology. They are real fighters. I mean that -- I'm not being rude to them, but they're real fighters. We just feel, who knows what will happen in the next few years and this all settles down, but certainly we want to protect the fighters that come from “Contender” and not get them into a world which has some responsibility for the lack of enjoyment I'm personally feeling in the last few years in boxing. So that's the responsibility. And it will all shake out in the next couple of years.

Q. One question: It sounds like you started your own federation?

MARK BURNETT: We are absolutely intending to have our own federation, if that's even the right word. But it's a lot of advising, lawyers. Right now the focus is first of all to take 16 fighters and give them a chance, but going forward yes, the intention is to protect these fighters and give them a chance.

Q. The word is this is the most expensive reality show ever put on television?

MARK BURNETT: No. That would have been Spice, actually. Spice which is yet to come -- no, it is -- you know, it's really -- I don't believe so. I think that goes to “ER” which is the most expensive show on television.

Q. Well, how about reality series?

MARK BURNETT: I don't know. I'm not looking at pockets. I just know that I think you can agree that what you see on the screen from my shows is quite frankly I feel excellent, and that's because I take it very seriously when someone like Jeff Zucker customer gives me a prime time slot and against the likes of “CSI,” “ER,” “Friends,” the American public is the most discriminating public in the world on television, and the reason that shows are expensive is as it goes on the screen.

Q. Sly, can you talk about your hopes for what the audience for this show will be?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: The audience, what the audience will be?

Q. Yeah, is it kids, mostly male? I mean, what is it?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: No. It shouldn't be mostly male at all. The real crux of the show will be where these men come from, their support team, their families, their life away from the ring, which is equally as fascinating as the life in the ring. I mean, of course we'll see them training and whatever, but when they go home at night and they're tired and they're hurting and do they have the support of that family or are they at odds with them, do they need the money, is it one dilemma after another? So you'll get to understand what makes these men tick. So the next day, all of us in life carry baggage into our job and we try to just do our job, but we have a lot of extenuating circumstances that we have to balance and focus on our occupation. Well, you'll see what these men -- when they go into a ring, they're just not going in there with a clear mind. They have this problem. They have this problem -- they have this dealing with their children and then they have death, they have all of these pains. So by the time they get in there, you'll feel as though you're part of that process hopefully. So -- and, Rocky, I've always said, it's not about -- it's always about Adrienne. That was it. She was the heart and soul, and without her the movie doesn't exist.

Q. Now, follow that up, you talked -- Mark talked about the targeting the inner city, that there is a lot of diversity in the inner city, multiple languages, will one of the rules be that they have to be English speaking?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: I think -- Mark, go ahead.

MARK BURNETT: I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror if I said we can't have a fighter that's Korean or that doesn't speak English as a first language. I think we're trying to give some help for certain communication, but we'll use subtitles. We're not going to discriminate in any way. You just couldn't be looking at yourself in the mirror for that. And I think that's even interesting. It's totally interesting.

Q. I know you said you told -- the variety that you wanted people free of suspicion, so somebody with that kind of background would probably be somebody –

MARK BURNETT: No. I think that there is a certain responsibility to the other 15 people to protect them. And I feel that if someone had a criminal problem in the past, they've paid their dues and given a second shot. This wouldn't be America if we didn't. America gives people second chances. That's what this country stands for. Did they give me a chance coming here like they did for me? Some -- I mean -- so there is some sort of limit in that way, you know what. Maybe go fight in prison, you know. But if someone has had a problem in the past and have worked to make good on that, they should be given a chance.

Q. Given your respective background, setting, any chance either one of you go into the ring this far in any of the episodes?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: Definitely yeah.

Q. We're not getting some other legendary fighters like Ali or Fraser?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: You know we're talking about that. I was thinking about that. I was hoping that Mike Tyson would show up like wearing wigs and glasses. He could -- oh, you fool us. This is a whole new thing. Like all of these fighters you'd see for years, you know, I didn't recognize them, like long hair. Sure. Come on. You have 16 pros, hall of famers.

Q. You will not be getting in the ring?

MARK BURNETT: I will not be getting in the ring in this case. I'm not stupid. I was thinking he would. Sly is in great shape and -- but tell them what he told me about when you got punched recently.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: Oh, yes. You know, I was working out and I thought, you know, one thing is fantasy. You’re playing hockey and you can you can do that. You know, you're the champion. So I decided to get into the ring with Joe Frazier. And I would say including the count, the fight was 14 seconds. And I'm serious. Whatever it took him to get across the ring, it ended the fight. And I said, you know what, it was the hardest punch -- I considered him the hardest puncher in the world. I mean, Mohammed Ali said it hit him so hard it shifted his head back. That's a quote. So I said I'm going to use him in Rocky. That would be a great idea. The bell rings and I notice -- he said why are his hands taped up to here? I realized it's air conditioning duct tape. It's -- he hit me so hard I could have swore someone drove a Buick through the window and into the ring. I have never -- next time I go to the producers, no, no, no you’re killing my summer house, don't do that. So -- and I deal with Doran, and there is great difference. Doran literally turned me into -- I was feeling like blue cheese. There was brie and there was blue. It was unbelievable what he could do to your body. So I have an immense respect and fear of these guys because there that good. And believe me, when you get in there and you're working with a real pro, you have a reality check. So I know what it's like to get hit by them. I've spoken with Ali, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, it gives you an idea of how demented I am, but I love the idea. I love the competition. So to be involved in this -- and me actually going in the ring with a few of these people and friends, what ever, I think that will be kind of fun. First of all, it won't be on the competitive level. It will just let you know that I'm part of the process.

Q. It sounds like you both lived Rocky's stories and it sounds like in a way you're taking about a lot more than boxing, like your adopting 16 people to create their Rocky stories?

MARK BURNETT: Yeah, I think obviously it comes -- I don't know if it's the correct term really, but I feel it's my fiduciary responsibility. And I can't think of anything I'd rather do right now, you know. I'm totally -- and with the amount of viewers -- I mean, how many journalists of “The Apprentice” will want to watch Trump you know, huge female numbers. And I am saying, who would want to see a show about business? You know, it's -- that's a show about people with the goal of getting the job and being in big business, which this country based. And the entire world is based on our entrepreneurs and this show it's about boxing. And they want to be voted. They want -- there will be a fight on the end of every episode and someone will be going home each week. And as you know how both of my shows tend to work. But it's not a show about boxing. Exactly what Sly said, the dream factor. And caring about these people each week.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: Exactly right. And it breaks my heart every time I see a fighter who really tried and he loses and it's kind of an emotional scar that they never get over. And if the audience understood the ramifications of that they're on their way home or there on the hospital and you know crying on their wife's shoulder it is as raw and as basic and as primitive and as touching and sentimental because this is a man who will face the world just with his hands. And the support if he doesn't have the support team and I have been in the ring with Aaron Pryor who is a world champion, and I've seen what kind of work he can do between rounds, you can keep saying punch and drive it, move it, be first, be first they know that. If they could, they would. I mean, it's like I kept going to the trainer. I said slip to your left if he could he would. I mean he can't. So I go you know what I don't care if you lose. I really don't I want you to know that we love you for trying 100 percent I swear to you and we'll love you after this. You have the heart of a champion and he went out and one the fight in the 15th round. Aaron Pryor won the championship and he had been almost -- well he had lost 13 rounds. So it's like you touch a certain nerve. And all of a sudden you feel strength. It's like extraordinary don't tell me about if I could I would, tell me that it's okay. If I lose, it's okay you still love me. A fighter is work on a very emotional level. Just like the audience. And if you can translate that, I think you've done everyone a good service. But it really is, we are all contenders, you know that? I mean, we really are.

Q. How much -- how much of the time will it be?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: It's going to be a lot -- you know, it really is. I'd like to be involved and get involved in the actual talent search visiting these people, evaluating and whole thing and getting to know them personally. So it's going to be quite time consuming.

MARK BURNETT: Thank you very much.