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Published: Saturday, 7/17/2004

NBC, ABC accuse Fox of stealing ideas

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

LOS ANGELES - It's been the topic of the week at the TV critics press tour:

Accusations of idea theft.

There's nothing new about clones and rip-offs. When one TV show is a hit, it spawns imitations. Friends begat Friends clones. Survivor led to any number of imitators.

But in those cases, the original show was already on the air and successful before the copycat arrived. With the advent of reality shows that can be rushed into production much more quickly, there's a new wrinkle. ABC announced Wife Swap months ago, but it won't air until fall. Fox is rushing a series with the same concept, Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy onto the air at 8 p.m. Tuesday. NBC announced a reality show about finding a new boxing star, The Contender. Fox followed with plans for The Next Great Champ.

Naturally, producers of the original series and the network executives responsible for getting them on the air are unhappy.

"Fox is doing that and it's bad for all of us," said NBC Universal Television Group president Jeff Zucker. "And I think it's unfortunate what they're doing. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in television and that's what happens. But I think what's going on right now is there seems to be a tendency to see somebody else's idea, hear it, and try to take it before the other guy does it. And I think that raises some real ethical issues."

ABC Primetime Entertainment president Stephen McPherson was more blunt and accused Fox of hearing pitches for a show from producers, turning them down, then ripping off the idea.

"If I was a member of the creative community, it would be incredibly disconcerting to me that if you take a show, a pitch, into Fox, and they can't, don't, or decide not to buy it, they will steal it," McPherson said. "I think it's really upsetting. I don't think it's right."

Movie studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks, who's an executive producer with Mark Burnett (Survivor) on NBC's boxing show The Contender, said he's never experienced anything like it.

"I have spent 30 years in Hollywood, in a business that I love and is everything that I know, and the sanctity of an idea is an ideal that I was taught from the very moment I arrived in this business and something that I respected," he said. "In the movie business, it is one that has been respected by everybody. It is a common ethic that is embraced. People come into our offices every day and tell us ideas, and this is a respect for that. So this is really, really disheartening, disappointing. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, theft is the lowest form of creativity."

Burnett said he pitched The Contender to Fox and to Oscar de la Hoya, who was tapped to host Fox's The Next Great Champ, which will beat The Contender to the air.

"They used to be innovators, and now they're imitators," Zucker said.

"That's coming to you from the instigator," Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman quipped during her vigorous defense of Fox. She said Fox's competitors were just nervous about her network's rising ratings in young demographics, and that's why they made copycatting an issue.

"Just like scripted projects with similar themes are being pitched simultaneously, we have the ability to react quickly and defy the competition," Berman said. "We are constantly striving to find the next big idea. In the creative world, ideas must be fluid and no one can claim sole ownership of an entire arena. People acting as if they invented the sport of boxing are disingenuous at the least."

Berman said after being pitched The Contender, which she said she attempted to buy before it was sold to NBC, reality powerhouse Endemol pitched The Next Great Champ. Berman said five other boxing shows were also pitched to networks. She also said Burnett tried to woo de la Hoya to his show before picking Sugar Ray Leonard as a host.

"This is the way television works," she said. "Producers come up with ideas every day. They see what's working and try to seize on what's working and come up with another take on it. There's nothing new about it."

She also defended Trading Spouses, rightfully pointing out that ABC announced the show with a spring or summer air date before bumping it to fall.

"We decided to develop a show similar [to it] never assuming we'd make it to air before spring," Berman said. "Why ABC chose not to put it on in the spring or summer was a big surprise to us. When we learned they were putting it on in the fall, there was an opportunity in the marketplace."

The upshot of this aggressive competition will be attempts by networks to develop unscripted series even more secretly than in the past to prevent another network from swiping an idea. For viewers, who came first makes little difference. But could someone please stop? Who needs a copy of a copy of a bad idea to begin with?

A war of words has erupted between Donald Trump, star of The Apprentice, and Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and star of ABC's The Benefactor, which some are labeling an Apprentice rip-off.

The verbal jousting has been going on pretty much since ABC announced The Benefactor after The Apprentice made a splash earlier this year and continued this week.

"I do like him, I just want him to do better with the show than he's done with the Dallas basketball team," Trump said. "I would like to see him do well on the show because I think there's room perhaps for other knock-offs of The Apprentice."

At an ABC Benefactor press conference, Cuban fired back. "I wish Donald nothing but the best for The Apprentice 2, and I hope it does just as well as his casinos do."



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