Fox, NBC facing a round in court

Networks fueding over reality boxing shows set for fall

August 27, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The fall television season doesn't start until Monday, but one of the most talked about new series of the year could find itself canceled today without ever making it on air. And the person pulling the plug would not be a network programmer, but a California judge.

In Los Angeles Superior Court today, the summer's nastiest network fight, over a pair of similar reality boxing shows, may come to a conclusion. The months-long bout has involved NBC, Fox and several big-name Hollywood producers battling over The Next Great Champ, set to premiere Sept. 7 on Fox, and The Contender, scheduled to debut in November on NBC.

The Contender features 16 boxers training with Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard before going to war in the ring with each other. The Next Great Champ follows a similar narrative with the boxing expertise provided by middleweight Oscar De La Hoya.

According to NBC, The Next Great Champ is nothing but a ripoff of The Contender - commissioned by Fox last spring after it lost a bidding war for Contender to NBC, which agreed to pay $2 million per episode for the show, a new reality record. Fox flatly denies the allegation.

This case is not the first time networks have gone to court trying to keep a competitor's show off the air. Last year, for example, CBS went into federal court to stop ABC from airing I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, claiming it was a blatant copy of Survivor. But the judge ruled in favor of ABC and dismissed the suit on the eve of the series' debut.

But no matter how the judge in Los Angeles rules today, the legal battle over The Next Great Champ is another instance of reality TV changing American television, violating rules that have governed other programming genres for half a century.

"There isn't any history of such actions before the recent [reality] cases, and there is a good reason for that: No broadcaster would want to invite the courts into such programming decisions. You are talking about prior restraint and serious First Amendment issues," said Dwight Teeter, University of Tennessee journalism professor and co-author of The Law of Mass Communications, the definitive textbook in the field. "The question is why it's happening with this kind of show."

The allegations

Despite NBC's allegations of ripoff, Mark Burnett (Survivor) and Jeffrey Katzenberg (Dreamworks Television), the rich and famous producers of The Contender, are not claiming copyright infrigement or idea theft in their complaint against Fox and Endemol, the producer of The Next Great Champ. Instead, they are alleging that in the rush to get on air before The Contender, Fox and Endemol violated California boxing laws, filming bouts staged by unlicensed promoters.

"These laws regulating boxing promotions are designed to protect the health and safety of the fighters and the sport itself. It would be terribly damaging to the sport, to our show, The Contender, and to all participants if anyone was to profit from or gain an unfair advantage by breaking the law," the complaint says.

Patty Glaser, an attorney for Endemol, says there were "absolutely no violations" of California state law: "We dotted all the i's and crossed the t's."

Fox contends the allegations are a ruse. In a written statement, the network said, "This is yet another in a series of never-ending attempts by the The Contender to stifle competition. They are simply trying to impede Fox's First Amendment rights by inserting themselves into a procedure in which they have no legitimate role."

Robert J. Thompson, Syracuse University professor and director of the school's Center for the Study of Popular Television, recognizes the First Amendment issues involved in cases like this one, but says he had no hesitation testifying as an expert witness for CBS in its attempt to keep I'm a Celebrity off ABC's airwaves.

"What's going on with reality programs is largely different from what happened before in other genres, and the producers and networks do need to be able to protect their property," Thompson said. "I mean, you look at a show like Joe Millionaire, and you can see it's just a blatant copy of The Bachelor. It was the same with I'm a Celebrity and Survivor. Stealing concepts that way is not business as usual in American television, and should not be treated as if it's OK."

There was a spate of network copycat series in the 1950s during the quiz-show craze, but the industry was in its prime-time infancy and it was a more wide-open environment. According to media historians, no network went to court during that era to keep a competitor's show off the air.

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