Who wants to watch a rip-off? TV copycats abound
By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
They say imitation is the sincerest form of television, and this year that's more true than ever.
Reality rip-offs are elbowing their way onto network schedules. And this time, copycat projects seek to upstage new shows before they've even aired.
Fox is particularly adept at this brand of sabotage: Today the network announces plans for Trading Spouses, in which a parent from one family switches with a counterpart from a mismatched clan. The show will premiere later this summer, before the scheduled fall debut of ABC's remarkably similar Wife Swap, which was adapted from a British series and announced in May.
This fall, Fox also will trot out The Next Great Champ, a drama-infused boxing competition hosted by Oscar De La Hoya, hoping to get a jump on NBC's The Contender, Mark Burnett's series featuring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard. And it plans an Apprentice-like series, The Billionaire: Richard Branson's Quest for the Best, but apparently not before ABC's own version of a rich-guy mentor show, Mark Cuban's The Benefactor, due Sept. 13.
But it's hardly alone. NBC is considering a launch in the fall for producer David E. Kelley's first stab at reality, a win-a-job contest among lawyers, to match Fox's earlier plans for The Partner, which is due in November. "Every producer comes in here, and you hear the same idea over and over again," Fox reality chief Mike Darnell says. "Quite honestly, you want to be the first one out there."
Says Burnett: "It's been made very clear to me that it's the Wild West. And the courts aren't going to do anything about even blatant rip-offs."
Despite much smaller audiences, cable, which ushered in the modern reality genre with MTV's The Real World, is a bigger factor now. In defense of Trading Spouses, Darnell points to WE's Take My Kids, Please!, ABC Family's Switched and National Geographic Channel's Worlds Apart, all with similar cross-cultural themes. And he says Fox's failed gay-themed Playing It Straight "lost an enormous amount of steam" by following Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Boy Meets Boy onto the air.
Others say the tactic reeks of desperation. Says Burnett's producing partner Conrad Riggs: "Because there's so few new hits these days, when there's a hot reality property, people say, 'How can I do something similar?' "
Darnell counters that Burnett himself is doing just that: He just sold CBS an Idol-like series (working title: Rock Star) that follows contestants who are vying to become the lead singer of Australian band INXS. That project, in turn, already is being cloned by a proposed series involving R&B group TLC.
"It's not good that someone does a rip-off show and comes out first," Riggs says. "But the superior show will stand on its own."http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2004-06-27-reality-ripoffs_x.htm