Format wars grow uglier, TV panel sez

Pitchmen pilfer pivotal pilots

If you thought the tiff between Fox and NBC over their competing boxing shows was a one-time squabble, get real.

The pilfering of reality concepts, pitches and even fully fleshed-out formats is rampant, and getting uglier by the day. Unfortunately, redress is no an easy matter.

That’s the consensus from a panel Friday in L.A. organized by the Intl. Academy and moderated by Ben Silverman, founder of reality shop Reveille.

The theft of concepts at increasingly earlier states of the process is “a frightening trend,” Silverman told the audience, most of whom are involved in the business of making and distributing nonscripted product to the world market. Panelists reckoned the global reality biz is worth a cool $1 billion at this point.

Imitation on the rise

While imitation has always been a natural reflex in the TV biz — remember “ER” and “Chicago Hope,” or the three “Amy Fisher” telepics — the tendency has been quickened and the breaches of traditional protocol ever bolder in the reality realm.

Part of the reason is that the time involved from idea through to production is much shorter than in the drama and sitcom biz. Another reason is the ever-fiercer competition among networks to seize whatever advantage they can in the ratings wars.

“There is a meanness that didn’t exist before. Now theft happens before a show even airs,” Touchstone TV prexy Mark Pedowitz pointed out.

Limited recourse

As for what to do about such wrongs, producer Eric Schotz, prexy-CEO of LMNO Prods., said the options generally are limited.

His own concept, “Finding Martha,” a project designed to uncover the next domestic diva, was reinvented suddenly by ABC, he said, even though the Alphabet’s webheads had just been pitched the concept by Schotz’s people. His company opted to let it go.

Bringing a lawsuit for such apparent breaches of conduct have not up until now been very successful for those who feel wronged. In most cases, apparently, judges can’t believe they’re having to focus on whether the music and the set of one gameshow is sufficiently similarly to those on another that’s considered a ripoff.

As Pedowitz put it, the best defense is “to get an injunction to stop a copycat show” before it can tarnish your own.

But there is an organization called Frapa, set up four years ago by a number of reality producer-distributors to monitor the genre on a global basis and help mount lawsuits when warranted.

Speed kills

Frapa chairman David Lyle, a former Fremantle exec, told the audience that “self-governing” is not happening anymore among reality producers, and thus the best defense against theft is “speed” — getting one’s show on the air as quickly as possible to thwart would-be imitators.

He said of 19 lawsuits in Europe recently tracked by Frapa, none resulted in damages for the plaintiff. He later told Daily Variety there have been several unheralded victories, including a case brought by Celador against a Scandi producer for pilfering “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and another one being brought in Germany that involves a high-ticket but unspecified show. (There are also a few cases of Hollywood majors threatening to withhold movies from stations abroad that have allegedly stolen the idea of a show to make their own version.)

The speakers also made distinctions during the discussion between the financial repercussions of being ripped off locally in the U.S., even sometimes by the very outlet to which one has pitched one’s format, and of being ripped off by foreign broadcasters.

It could be, several panelists speculated, that the cost of creating reality shows will go up and there will be less and less of a backend abroad, since protecting the format will become increasingly difficult.

In both instances, the most important factor, suggested William Morris’ top international agent Hans Schiff, is to execute one’s concept well. From his perspective, he added, servicing the producer clients comes first. Almost all the top producers are working from the same clutch of basic concepts: You essentially have to concentrate on going out and hustling to make yours the best.

As for the moral high ground, it’s hard for anyone in this dog-eat-dog part of the biz to claim it.

Playing both sides

Most of the panelists have been both accuser and accused: Schotz’s “Boot Camp” was alleged by “Survivor” creators to be a ripoff; Lyle’s former boss Fremantle was fingered for cloning “Millionaire” with its “Greed”; and Schiff was involved with packaging Fox’s “Next Great Champ,” which NBC gripes is a dirty rotten knockoff, to mention only some obvious squabbles.

There may be a difference between a concept and a full-fledged format, one panelist said, but unless there’s one big court case where the aggrieved party emerges victorious, not much is likely to change.

The Intl. Academy, the international arm of the Academy of TV Arts & Science, periodically organizes confabs on issues related to the global market.

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