Topper: Theft allegations outrageous

Stepping into the ring, Fox Television entertainment prexy Gail Berman on Thursday said the net did nothing wrong in counterpunching NBC by cutting its own deal for an unscripted boxing series. Reality guru Mark Burnett had pitched the idea to all the networks but ultimately went with the Peacock.

Berman’s appearance at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour provided high drama, coming five days after NBC Entertainment, News & Cable prexy Jeff Zucker took the same stage and told critics that Fox is a thief. Peacock is steamed that Fox is rushing “The Next Great Champ” onto the sked even before its boxing skein “The Contender” bows in November.

“The baseless allegations of the theft and extortion are outrageous and unacceptable. I will not participate in perpetuating this myth,” Berman said. “We’re up to the challenge at Fox as we go head-to-head for the viewing audience.

“Just like scripted programming, the unscripted world has reached a point where multiple projects with similar themes are being pitched simultaneously. Fox has always been aggressive and noisy. We have the ability to reach quickly and defy the competition.”

The bout between the networks was perhaps inevitable, because reality projects are so much easier to turn around than scripted skeins.

Backing up Zucker at TCA was DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is partnering with Burnett on “Contender.” Katzenberg said it is wrong for a studio or producer to rip off a pitch, saying that “theft is the lowest form of creativity.”

Berman said no one “owns” ideas, adding that Fox was very aggressive in its bid for “Contender.” She said there’s no doubt there can be an advantage in bowing a new reality genre, such as boxing, first.

“People who are acting as if they invented the sport of boxing are disingenuous at the least,” Berman said.

Further fueling the flames of discord, Zucker last Saturday revealed to critics two secret reality shows Fox is working on.

Berman on Thursday wouldn’t confirm any details, saying “ask Jeff.”

But some TCA critics wouldn’t let up, saying that Fox has indeed become — to echo the words of Zucker — “an imitator, not an innovator.”

“I don’t know if that’s the viewers’ impression and I don’t know if it’s your impression, but it is not the facts,” Berman said.

Potentially more worrying for Fox brass is the fact that the California State Athletic Commission is investigating “Champ” — produced by Endemol USA and GoldenBoy Enterprises — for possible violations regarding the production of the show.

Along with the “Contender”-“Champ” controversy, many have accused Fox of rushing onto the summer sked a copycat version of ABC’s new reality series “Wife Swap,” which has a fall launch date.

Fox senior VP for alternative programming Mike Darnell said ABC had originally announced it would premiere “Swap” in the spring, when Fox’s “Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy” was still in development.

ABC subsequently delayed the bow of its show.

“This is a competitive business. Producers see what’s working and come up with another take on it,” Berman said, adding that it’s the viewers who will decide which shows work and which don’t.

She said the reason Zucker decided to turn the issue into a “cause celebre” is that NBC is feeling the heat from Fox thanks to the blockbuster hit “American Idol” and nighttime soap “The OC.” This fall, Fox is moving “OC” to Thursday at 8 p.m., directly against NBC’s “Joey,” the “Friends” spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc.

Fox’s move to a year-round sked got under way last month when the net bowed six new shows.

Berman said the idea of a summer launch is still new to people but that at least two of the shows are “bona fide” hits, “Quintuplets” and “The Simple Life 2: Road Trip.”

Berman announced a string of launch dates: “The Complex: Malibu” (Aug. 30, two-hour series premiere); “North Shore” (Sept. 6); “That ’70s Show,” “Quintuplets,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Method & Red” (Sept. 8); “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back” (Sept. 11); “MadTV,” (Sept. 18); “The Swan 2″ (Oct. 25, two-hour premiere); “The OC” and “Tru Calling” (Nov. 4); “King of the Hill,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Simpsons” (annual Halloween special), “The Partner” (series premiere) and “Arrested Development” (Nov. 7); “Simpsons” (Nov. 14, season premiere); and “House” (Nov. 16, series premiere).

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