'Wipeout' special set for Super Sunday

6:40 PM PST 12/08/2008 by James Hibberd, AP

ABC to counterprogram with sports-star installment

On Super Bowl Sunday, football fans will have a choice: the Boss or the Big Balls.

ABC plans to counterprogram NBC's game-day entertainment telecasts with a sports-star-studded episode of the summer obstacle-course hit "Wipeout."

The Disney-owned network will air a brief football-themed "Wipeout" special against NBC's official halftime show headlined by Bruce Springsteen. Then, during NBC's post-Bowl presentation of "The Office," ABC will air an hourlong "Wipeout" in which cheerleaders compete against male "couch potato" sports fans.

The strategy will mark the first time in five years a major broadcast network has gone after a rival's Super Bowl momentum with original entertainment programming.

"It's broadcast's biggest day, and this is a big mass-market show, and it's fun to be able to participate and be a part of it," said John Saade, senior vp alternative programming at ABC. "This will put 'Wipeout' back in the public's consciousness between runs, and we plan to have a lot of fun with it."

The two-part ABC special -- dubbed "Wipeout Superball Sunday" -- pulls out all the stops to cater to NFL fans: Hall of Famer Michael Irving will lend sideline commentary, the Navy's Blue Angels will perform a flyover, the USC marching band will storm the course, contestants will run a gantlet with quarterbacks pelting them with footballs, NFL luminaries will stop by the commentary booth, and the show's signature Big Balls obstacle has been converted into jumbo-sized footballs.

The special is one of the most ambitious Super Bowl Sunday programming plans ever mounted by a non-host network. Yet for the reality show's producer, Endemol, it's familiar territory.

In 2002, NBC enjoyed some of Fox's big game thunder by airing a special episode of the Endemol-produced "Fear Factor" featuring Playboy Playmates as contestants during halftime. "Fear Factor" siphoned off 11.4 million viewers. The family-friendly "Wipeout" could attract even more.

"There's a tremendous amount of people who tune into TV during the Super Bowl, and we don't expect to get most of them," executive producer Matt Kunitz said. "But if we can pull even 12 million to 20 million away, that would be great."

Great for ABC and for "Wipeout" but less so for struggling NBC, which is counting on an attentive Super Bowl audience to promote its midseason slate, including new drama "Kings" and the return of "Celebrity Apprentice." After the game, NBC will air a one-hour edition of "The Office."

Rival programming is unlikely to make a supersized ratings dent in NBC's telecast, though a network airing the Super Bowl always prefers a clear competitive playing field.

In 1992, Fox counterprogrammed CBS' halftime show with a live "In Living Color" special that stunned the industry by drawing away more than 20 million viewers. In 2003, NBC ran a "Weekend Update" telecast during halftime with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey and in 2004 aired a "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" marathon.

In recent years, broadcasters have aired repeats, movies and news specials during the Super Bowl and avoided headline-making attempts to lure viewers -- partly to avoid irritating the NFL. Unlike the other Big Four networks, ABC is not in Super Bowl rotation. Parent company Disney has close NFL ties, though, with ESPN airing "Monday Night Football." ABC's plan only schedules "Wipeout" during NBC's entertainment telecasts, not during the game itself.

Cable networks are another matter. Smaller channels are opportunistic about counterprogramming the game because luring away even a handful of fans from the Super Bowl's epic annual audience of about 90 million viewers can make a difference.

Animal Planet has aired its popular "Puppy Bowl" since 2005. Lifetime, Spike TV, Oxygen and TNT also have run Super Bowl counterprogramming in recent years.

"Wipeout" was the only new reality show to break out during the summer, and ABC has ordered 16 hours for next year.

"ABC did an incredible job promoting this and getting behind it in the summer, and the Super Bowl special is just another example of how they're committed to the marketing and promotion of this show," Endemol president David Goldberg said.

"Wipeout" co-host John Henson said the "Superball" episode is crammed with so much stunting he's worried about his quips being able to keep up with the action. Still, he's confident the cheerleaders-versus-lazy-fans format will provide plenty of comedic material.

"Hot chicks and fat guys," Henson said. "It's been the backbone of sitcoms for 20 years."
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