Who owns the rights to reality? In the entertainment world, that isn't as nebulous a question as it might seem. Entertainment conglomerate CBS (NYSE: CBS ) is suing Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) ABC, alleging that the latter's new reality series infringes the copyright of one of CBS's unscripted mainstays. This isn't the first and it probably won't be the last reality-show lawsuit. The question is whether it'll open the floodgates for similar legal hassles, putting the high profitability of such programs at risk.
For broadcasters, reality shows are an irresistible financial proposition. Thanks to much lower production expenses and deep savings on cast members -- who tend to be either non-professional (and hence non-unionized) actors, or faded celebrities -- their budgets are significantly lower than those of scripted series. Therefore, they cost a lot less to produce and acquire.
And audiences love them. For example, one of the only long-term, consistently well-performing shows on News Corp.'s (Nasdaq: NWS ) broadcast TV arm Fox is a reality show, the hallowed American Idol. The series, now in its second decade of existence, is a habitual occupier of the No. 1 slot in the ever-important Nielsen ratings and brings in a lot of dough for its parent company. It's also launched the careers of a number of its contestants and made household names of host Ryan Seacrest and former judge Simon Cowell.
That means the turf is worth fighting over. As far as CBS is concerned, ABC's new offering Life in a Glass House is a copy of its version of the international favorite Big Brother. Like American Idol, Big Brother has been on the air since the beginning of this century and has posted impressive audience numbers and, subsequently, brought in piles of ad revenue. No wonder CBS is so keen to throw roadblocks in front of the show's new rival.
Second verse, same as the first
The broadcasters and production companies not directly involved in this lawsuit will nevertheless be keeping a wary eye on it. That's because, since there are so many reality shows crowding the schedules of network and cable TV, it's a genre that's almost unavoidably derivative. One leading example is the programming of Bravo, controlled by Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA ) . Bravo's schedule is so reality-heavy that the channel is forced to constantly rip itself off -- every year, it seems, brings a new iteration of its popular Real Housewives series.
It's apparent that in this game, the higher the budget, the more intense the "borrowing" from existing shows. Comcast's NBC has had a lot of success with its aggressively promoted The Voice, essentially an American Idol-style singing competition dressed up with a few gimmicks to seem fresh and at least somewhat original. And isn't Bravo's Top Chef, for instance, really just the umpteenth variation on competitive cooking shows like Food Network's Iron Chef America? How many clothing/modeling series can be unique over airwaves that are stuffed with the likes of Project Runway, How Do I Look?, America's Next Top Model, Say Yes to the Dress, and on and on?
This is probably why there have been few copyright infringement lawsuits in the reality sphere -- it seems to be commonly understood and accepted that the genre is imitative by its very nature. After all, how many different ways can filmmakers present a group of strangers living together in one house scheming to eliminate each other? This is the common thread binding not only Big Brother and Life in a Glass House, but also tons of other unscripted programs over the years.
So if a lawsuit is brought against a reality-show producer or broadcaster, it usually tends to be from a disgruntled contestant with some type of grievance. Up until now, copycat gripes were essentially left out of the courtroom.
Burden of proof
Copyright-infringement suits aren't easy to win, since the plaintiffs have to meet high standards to prove "substantial" similarities between the disputed pieces of material. Although that might be the case with the two reality shows, Disney has sharp and well-paid lawyers who could probably highlight enough differences to quash the suit.
Besides, no broadcaster really and truly wants to start an all-out copyright world war over reality shows. There are too many of them, and they're too popular and lucrative for the big industry players to put in jeopardy. Look for CBS and Disney to settle the case before it blows up and swallows too much effort and money to prosecute or defend. In the most likely scenario, Disney/ABC will agree to make a few more tweaks to distinguish its new show from Big Brother. In the end, though, nobody's going to risk killing the reality-show golden goose.
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