Copyright and Television Shows: The Boxing Match Between NBC and Fox

by on August 18, 2004

Producers of the new NBC boxing reality show “The Contender” are currently in court trying to get a restraining order to prevent the Fox television network from airing its own boxing reality show “The Next Great Champ.” In this case, NBC most certainly does not believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In fact, at least in this case, they think imitation constitutes the theft of their intellectual property.

But that seems a little funny to me because I don’t remember NBC waving the intellectual property flag when they debuted “Kingpin” in 2003, a fairly blatant “Sopranos” rip-off. And they had no problem airing “The Weakest Link” even though critics dismissed it as a poor “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” imitator.

Indeed, when you think about, the history of television has been based as much on imitation as it has on innovation. Countless shows through the years have built upon the themes, plots, or characters found in other popular shows. Consider:

* “Miami Vice” spawned the ABC rip-off “The Insider” that featured, you guessed it, a white and black cop team driving fancy sports cars that no cop on this earth could afford. And fifteen years later Fox gave us “Fastlane” with the exact same premise. Why doesn’t Miami Vice creator Michael Mann start suing these guys! (And just think of all the other cop shows before and after that share similar characters and plot lines. Here’s a list.)

* “Dallas” was wildly popular in the late 70s and spawned a host of imitators involving wealthy tycoons and their highly dysfunctional families: “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” “Dynasty,” and don’t forget “Dynasty II: The Colbys” with Charlton Heston!

* “L.A. Law,” “The Practice,” “The D.A.”… all the same show to me.

* How original are TV sit-coms? Seriously, have the plot lines really changed that much since the days of “The Honeymooners” and “The Dick van Dyke Show”? There’s always a silly couple and a wacky neighbor, and now every show has 2 or 3 wacky kids too. Even when one of the kids in the sit-com is a fairly unique character, somebody will rip them off. Hence, Gary Coleman of “Different Strokes” was quickly followed by Emmanuel Lewis of “Webster.”

* And what if we applied this logic to the seemingly endless string of daytime talk shows out there today. Just about every one of these talk show gab-fests has the exact same format that Donahue and Oprah got started long ago. Maybe they should start suing Ellen DeGeneres and Co. for copyright infringement. (For God’s sake, even Tony Danza has his own show now! If that’s not a sign that the end times are near, I don’t know what is.)

Anyway, my point here is simple: Television is full of imitation and everybody is a little bit guilty of borrowing someone else’s ideas and plot lines at some point in time. They shouldn’t turn stuff like this into a big copyright fight. It’s just silly.

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