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Contestant on NBC Reality Show Commits Suicide
By BILL CARTER
Published: February 15, 2005
contestant in "The Contender" a new NBC reality series about boxing scheduled to start next month, committed suicide yesterday in Philadelphia, network executives said last night.
NBC executives said that the show would go on as planned, starting March 7.
The contestant, Najai Turpin, 23, a middleweight boxer from Philadelphia who was known as Nitro, took his life, NBC executives said.
They offered no other details about the suicide, though they said they thought it had nothing to do with events on the television show.
"The Contender" chronicles not only the boxers' efforts to win the television tournament, which carries a prize of $1 million, but follows their personal lives, including their relationships with spouses and children. Mr. Turpin's girlfriend also appears in the series, NBC said.
Mr. Turpin, who entered the series as a well-regarded young fighter with a 13-1 record, had a 2-year-old daughter with his girlfriend.
Except for a planned live championship, set to take place in May, all the bouts in the "The Contender" have been completed and are on tape. Because the show, like all other reality shows, depends on the suspense of not knowing the outcome of each week's episode, no results of the bouts have been released.
NBC executives said they were saddened by the news and were setting up a fund to help Mr. Turpin's family. But they said they were convinced the network would be able to broadcast the show as planned.
Mark Burnett, the show's executive producer, said: "Nothing changes. I'm not even going to make any edits because it's real." Mr. Burnett said that at some point, the series will make a mention of Mr. Turpin's death, probably in an onscreen message at the end of an episode.
Still, the suicide presents NBC and the show's producers with the quandary of how to deal with Mr. Turpin's death without disrupting the show. Each week two boxers are selected to fight and become the central characters in that week's episode. Mr. Turpin would thus be a principal character in at least one show and if he won his first fight and continued on the series, he would be an even more significant factor.
NBC has more invested in "The Contender" than any previous reality series, having made a commitment to spend more than $2 million an episode for the 13-episode series. "The Contender" is produced by Mr. Burnett, the most accomplished producer in the reality genre. A principal in the DreamWorks studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, is also a producer on the series.
The two men conceived the series as a way to help resurrect the sport of boxing. They have made deals with all 16 boxers involved to promote their careers. The fighters agreed not to pursue any other matches until the series was completed this spring, and the show is paying them $1,500 a week to stay in training in the interim, Mr. Burnett said.
Mr. Turpin's suicide recalled an incident that almost derailed "Survivor," Mr. Burnett's first hit reality show and the one that ignited the reality trend in American television. A contestant in the first version of the show, which was made for Swedish television and was not produced by Mr. Burnett, committed suicide after he was the first person voted off the island.
The incident stirred concerns about the risks of reality television, and led Mr. Burnett to conduct extensive psychological tests on his contestants.
Mr. Burnett said that the boxers on the show had undergone psychological testing.
A biography of Mr. Turpin on the show's Web site said he had been a restaurant employee who worked cleaning seafood when he was not training for his matches.
The biography described him as determined to use his boxing career to create a better life for himself and his family.