Reality format spat

'Wife' producer RDF sues 'Trading's' Fox

“Trading Spouses,” meet your new enemy: “Wife Swap” producer RDF Media has filed suit against Fox and Rocket Science Laboratories, charging them with stealing its reality show concept.

In the complaint, filed Wednesday in Los Angeles District Court, U.K.-based RDF accuses “Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy” broadcaster Fox and producer Rocket Science of copyright and trade dress infringement, in addition to unfair competition. The producer argues that “Trading Spouses” looks too much like “Wife Swap,” from the way both shows are produced and edited to their similar opening credits montages.

RDF is looking for at least $18 million in damages ($1 million for each episode that has aired so far), in addition to all “gains, profits and advantages derived” from the show. RDF is also demanding Fox and Rocket Science completely alter the “Trading Spouses” format. ABC, which airs “Wife Swap,” is not involved in the suit.

Fresh title?

” ‘Trading Spouses’ more aptly might be entitled ‘Trading Copyrights’ (or perhaps ‘Copyright Swap’), given that defendants’ series is nothing more than a blatant and wholesale copycat of RDF Media’s original, innovative and highly successful ‘Wife Swap’ series,” the suit said.

In particular, RDF said “Trading Spouses” copied elements of “Wife Swap” including “the structure of each airing of a complete swap, the sequence of events, the plot, the tone, the theme, the pace, the scene setups, the narration, the dialogue that arises from constructed situations, the contrasting settings, the structured before-and-after dialogue, the topics explored” and even “the dramatic and comedic effect created by music.”

Fox declined comment, while Rocket Science execs were unavailable.

“In our view, this is the most clear-cut case of copyright theft in the history of the reality genre,” said RDF programs director Stephen Lambert.

RDF first struck a deal with ABC for a U.S. version of “Wife Swap” in December 2002; the original U.K. version of the show bowed in early 2003. The show grew into a hit overseas, and the Alphabet web officially announced plans in fall 2003 to produce a domestic version.

Early launch

Show was originally slated for a summer 2004 launch but was unveiled to advertisers in May as part of the net’s fall lineup. A few weeks later, in June, Fox announced plans to bow “Trading Spouses” (Daily Variety, June 25).

The controversy over “Trading Spouses” has been raging since then. At the summer TV critics press tour, ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson accused Fox of swiping the concept.

“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,” he said.

During the same time, Fox had also been accused of ripping off Mark Burnett and DreamWorks’ “The Contender” by creating the rival boxing skein “Next Great Champ.”

In an attempt to block “Next Great Champ,” DreamWorks and Burnett filed suit this summer, invoking an obscure law to act as “private attorneys general” and accused the show of willfully violating the rules and regulations of California’s State Athletic Commission.

A state Superior Court judge turned down their motion, however, and “Next Great Champ” aired as planned, (although it quickly staggered in the ratings).

Starting strong

“Trading Spouses” bowed to strong numbers this summer — concerning ABC execs, who feared that the first show out of the gate would lay claim to most viewers interested in the format. But “Wife Swap” also launched this fall to strong numbers, and continues to perform well for the Alphabet web.

For its part, Fox execs have pointed out that imitation is a part of television — ABC’s Mark Cuban entry “The Benefactor” was a twist on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” for example. And in one major difference between the two shows, “Trading Spouses” offers a cash prize to the participating families.

Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman also pointed out this summer that “Wife Swap” would have made it to air before “Trading Spouses,” but the show was delayed — giving Fox an opportunity to develop a (similar) show.

But RDF is now using that statement as the basis for its allegation that Fox and Rocket Science decided to copy “Wife Swap” in order to “confuse viewers and mislead them into watching ‘Trading Spouses’ rather than ‘Wife Swap.’ ”

A brief ABC statement said the net respects “our producing partner’s right to protect their intellectual property in whatever manner they deem most appropriate.”

Coincidentally, RDF lawyer Stanton (Larry) Stein is representing another U.K. production company, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” creator Celador, in a suit against Disney and ABC. Celador is arguing that Disney failed to negotiate fair market rights for the gamer from its ABC web and inflated the show’s production costs, cheating it out of profits.

High burden of proof

With past reality TV copyright lawsuits in mind, RDF faces a tremendous burden of proof in demonstrating Fox and Rocket Science violated its copyright. But an RDF victory would likely have a huge impact on the reality industry, which has become ultra secretive and even more competitive in light of the format battles.

In the last major reality copyright case, a Manhattan judge ruled last year that ABC and producer Granada’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” hadn’t ripped off CBS’ “Survivor.”

In another case, CBS and Fox settled a suit in 2001 over the reality entry “Boot Camp,” which the Eye also accused of copying “Survivor.” And ABC sued Fox over similarities between gamers “The Chair” and “The Chamber,” but that suit faded away when both shows failed.

But in regards to “Wife Swap,” insiders close to RDF said they believed there were enough similarities between the two shows to warrant a case.

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