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Stuck Working Underground: TBS outbids Fox, will broadcast “Chilean Miner Idol”

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Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., has trumped Fox in a heated bidding war over the U.S. broadcast rights to “Chilean Miner Idol,” a singing competition featuring the 33 miners trapped underground roughly 28 miles north of Copiapó, Chile. The competition, set to begin broadcasting on Chile’s Chilevisión later this week, is scheduled to debut on TBS in mid-October.

Chilean Miner Idol will feature songs designed to inspire the miners, trapped nearly half a mile beneath the Earth’s surface since the roof of the San José mine collapsed on Aug. 5. One of the miners is Bolivian and it’s not believed that he’ll compete, leaving 32 contestants with a shot at the grand prize — that coveted first ticket out, also a recording contract with Arista Records.

Chilean government officials have suggested that the reality television program will provide a badly needed boost to an economy already devastated this year by a massive earthquake, however the move to broadcast on Chilevisión has Fox executives crying favoritism.

“It’s our concept, a violation of our Idol trademark,” said Kevin Montgomery of Fox Broadcasting Company. “This thing stinks of politics, kickbacks and favors — that’s fine what goes on in Chile but we’ll make sure this is never broadcast to an American audience.” It’s believed Fox and TBS have already settled although terms have not been disclosed.

State-owned TVN was originally expected to secure broadcasting rights but third-place Chilevisión won the bidding war backed by parent company TBS, a Time Warner company. Until recently, Chilevisión was owned by newly-elected Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, who promised to sell his 100% stake if elected. TBS reached an agreement with Chilevisión on Aug. 25, three weeks after the mining disaster.


“This was a legitimate process and our only concern is the with the safety of the miners,” said Jeff Brown of TBS. “Coming off the heels of luring Conan O’Brien, I can see where Fox might be bitter. Clearly they’re putting a profit motive above the top concern, which is maintaining the spirits of those trapped underground, and possibly finding the next big recording star.”

San José mine owner Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera has faced repeated safety violations and lawsuits, citing negligence. The copper-gold mine has had a history of safety problems and was closed in 2007 following an accident. When the mine reopened the following year, it was not equipped with proper evacuation measures and stricter regulations were ignored. On Aug. 5, the 33 miners were unable to escape to a ventilation shaft because a ladder had not been installed. It’s feared the company will file for bankruptcy shortly after the miners are rescued and this is what led Chilean government officials to green-light the TV project.

A 12-inch bore hole reached the miners on Sept. 18 — 44 days into the disaster — immediately followed by a 28-inch drill, which will produce a passage large enough for the miners to be lifted through. That drill is currently about 525 feet from completing its 2,300-foot journey. Originally expected to take four months, rescue efforts have advanced at such a pace that a target range between Oct. 15 and Oct. 30 is likely and President Piñera is hopeful it happens prior to a scheduled Oct. 17 trip to Europe. Taping is expected to conclude by Oct. 15 but with broadcast likely to be extended through November it’s unknown how the networks intend to maintain surprise while news coverage tips the winner.

The borehole has allowed rescuers to send narrow plastic tubes filled with food, hydration gels and communications equipment to the miners, who to no avail have been requesting wine. Originally, iPods and Playstation Portable devices were sent to help miners pass the time however Alberto Iturra Benavides, lead psychiatrist for the relief effort, banned this to prevent the miners from shutting themselves off from the rest of the group. Beans, the natural staple of the Chilean diet, are also banned for much of the same reason.

It’s been a difficult year for Chile, the world’s largest producer of copper. The country suffered an 8.8 magnitude earthquake on Feb. 27, which lasted up to 90 seconds and killed close to 500 people. The quake was so massive, it generated a tsunami 6,700 miles away in Hawaii, moved the Earth off its axis approximately 3 inches, sped up the rotation of the planet by 1.26 megaseconds and moved the city of Concepción 10 feet to the west.  The insurance industry estimates the damage at between $4 and $7 billion dollars.

“The country’s been devastated financially and now this,” Brown said. “Everyone here at TBS has been trying to find a way to help and do their part. A singing contest was the next logical progression in that plan.”

Host of the show is actor Cristián de la Fuente, who has appeared on U.S. television in “CSI: Miami,” “Ugly Betty” and, with partner Cheryl Burke, finished third in Season 6 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

In probably one of the worst-kept industry secrets in years, judges will consist of Tom Araya — Chilean-born bassist and vocalist of the heavy metal band Slayer — supermodel Gabriela Barros and American Idol Season 5 third-place finisher Elliott Yamin, presumably still trapped in the country and awaiting diabetic supplies. Barros was hired after the diva demands of Cecilia Bolocco got out of control, including a stipulation TBS cover her Church of Scientology dues. Network execs say if Barros sits in the middle chair and says nothing, ratings will still be historic.

Neither TBS or Chilevisión have confirmed but it’s expected the program will mirror American Idol with the exception of allowing instruments only if they fit through a 12-inch hole. “More flutes and harmonicas than guitars and pianos,” says one network rep. Miners will be supplied battery-operated Bose speakers and iPods loaded with a carefully selected list of song choices. Sources say contestants won’t so much be judged on vocals due to the obvious limitations in sound quality and instead will be judged on overall performance.

Idol’s first U.S. broadcast will be Sunday Oct. 17, a 2-hour special, followed with a 30-minute results show prior Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Monday, Oct. 18.

A leaked list of song choices for the pilot episode included:

Special Skype mentor Jack Johnson will lead the miners through Group Night, as the contestants sing his 2005 hit, “Better Together.”

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