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THE NATION | Network bosses put on a show of their
own, amid accusations of idea theft and unseemly behavior.

Life Imitates Reality TV When Execs Square Off

July 16, 2004|Scott Collins and Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writers

Here's the concept: Take a group of blunt-talking, hyper-competitive overachievers. Install them in the sub-basement of a deluxe Century City hotel. Watch the heated accusations of theft and treachery break out.

No, it's not some unholy hybrid of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice." This game is playing out in real life, as network executives at a semiannual TV critics gathering at the Century Plaza Hotel stage a down-and-dirty war over copycat "reality" shows.

Executives at NBC and ABC have angrily accused Fox of stealing ideas for unscripted series about boxing and, of all things, wife swapping. Fox fired back with an outraged defense Thursday -- as well as a stunt involving boxing gloves and a "Rocky III" soundtrack that gave the proceedings a touch of the reality-style high jinks central to the programs everybody's fighting about.

TV veterans point out that networks borrow ideas all the time, as any viewer who's witnessed cycles of hospital dramas, yuppie sitcoms and forensic cop shows can attest. But in these latest cases, the distinctive nature of reality TV itself is helping to boost the tensions.

"These shows are outcome-dependent," said Los Angeles-based litigator Jonathan Anschell. "Who's the person who will become Donald Trump's apprentice? Who's the person who'll become the American idol? Once one network captures that excitement, it's hard for another network to duplicate it."

And reality shows can be knocked out in weeks, which makes it easier to imitate a rival's concept, unlike sitcoms and dramas, which typically take months or even years to develop.

While originality has seldom been a hallmark of network TV, the network suits are apoplectic that Fox is racing to launch its rival shows as preemptive first strikes, which could well hurt the prospects for NBC's "The Contender" and ABC's "Wife Swap," both on the fall schedule.

The glut of copycats might eventually take their toll on the reality genre, which in four years has mushroomed from a marginal trend to the brightest hope of the beleaguered broadcast TV business. Because reality shows are devouring so many time slots once earmarked for sitcoms and dramas, some long-suffering TV veterans are even praying that the current fracas may help hasten the demise of the trend. That's not likely soon; the genre has become so accepted that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which announced Emmy nominations Thursday, has this year created not one but two categories to honor the unscripted shows.

NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker got the brouhaha started Saturday when he violated an unwritten rule in the industry by spilling the goods on two previously unreported Fox reality projects: one called "Who's My Daddy?" and another, "Big Shot," in which business types compete for a job with a tycoon who turns out to be a fraud. TV executives pride themselves on knowing what competitors are up to, often learning the latest gossip from top agents and keeping written, continuously updated tallies of competitive projects in development. But it was in the past considered bad form -- as well as an invitation for reprisal -- to toss such intelligence to a roomful of eager reporters.

Then on Monday, ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson stoked the fires by helpfully warning reality producers to avoid pitching ideas to Fox: "They will steal it, plain and simple," he said at the critics' conference by video hookup from Paris, where he's honeymooning.

But to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, idea theft is rarely plain and never simple. Or at least that's the contention of Fox executives, who maintain the reality craze has spawned so many similar pitches that an idea's provenance is almost impossible to determine.

"People who are acting as if they invented the sport of boxing are disingenuous, at the least," Fox entertainment President Gail Berman told reporters Thursday. "The baseless allegations of theft and extortion are outrageous and unacceptable."

She suggested NBC was afraid that Fox was gaining too much ground among young viewers and that ABC's own delays had paved the way for Fox's wife-swapping show. But Berman insisted that she won't launch a counterstrike by revealing details of secret NBC projects, even though, she said, "I do know loads."

Fox has long been a leader in the reality genre, and its parent firm, News Corp., this week announced plans for an all-reality cable and satellite network.

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