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Reality TV's Copycat Fight: Can CBS Stop ABC's Glass House?

Radio and TV pioneer Fred Allen once quipped, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television." But he didn't live to see today's reality-TV wars, which erupted again this spring after CBS accused ABC of ripping off Big Brother and Fox announced plans to tweak NBC's The Voice.

Michael Schneider

Radio and TV pioneer Fred Allen once quipped, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television." But he didn't live to see today's reality-TV wars, which erupted again this spring after CBS accused ABC of ripping off Big Brother and Fox announced plans to tweak NBC's The Voice.
Can't we all just get along? When it comes to unscripted TV, the answer is a resounding "no." CBS has filed suit to stop ABC from launching the new reality show The Glass House, which is scheduled to debut on June 18 unless a federal judge slaps an injunction on it. And that's just the latest in a long line of complaints between networks over copycat shows.
TV Guide Magazine first broke the news of The Glass House in April, calling it ABC's attempt to "take on" Big Brother. CBS claims ABC stole trade secrets and is guilty of copyright infringement by creating a show that is similar in nature to Big Brother — 14 contestants living in a large house, isolated from the outside world, who are filmed continuously; interactive features; and contestants who are voted off, with the last player winning a big prize.
CBS notes that 19 staffers on The Glass House once worked on Big Brother, including executive producer Kenny Rosen, and says all of them had signed nondisclosure agreements. The sheer number of ex-Big Brother employees proves that ABC is copying the show, CBS says, and will now have the ability to rely on the unique ways that Big Brother is produced, including the technical setup and story-producing process. "CBS has expended considerable time, money and labor in the development of these trade secrets," the suit says. Calling the actions "oppressive and malicious," CBS is asking for $500,000 for "each act of violation," among other damages.
But The Glass House will still go on, as ABC has so far caught a break: CBS' case has bounced around the court, as two different judges wound up excusing themselves from the case. A third judge then sent the case's lawyers to a magistrate to start taking depositions and collecting documents — but it's unclear whether CBS will have enough information to file an injunction against The Glass House before its June 18 debut. (CBS may have a better case once the new showdebuts and it's an apparent Big Brother clone. On the flip side, if The Glass House looks and feels different enough, CBS' case may be moot.)
ABC is going out of its way in order to not tip its hat to CBS — so far, The Glass House hasn't released many details, such as actual photos of its set. The show only announced its contestants on Monday.
This isn't the first time CBS and ABC tussled over a reality show. In 2003, CBS tried to stop ABC from airing I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! — which CBS claimed was a rip-off of Survivor. A judge noted that TV shows continue to borrow elements from programs that aired before them, and let Celebrity proceed. CBS also sued Fox over Boot Camp, another Survivor clone, but settled out of court. And the producers behind ABC's Wife Swap once filed suit against Fox for the copycat Trading Spouses, but a judge let Fox air that show anyway.
Of course, there were plenty of Friends wannabes back in the day, but cloning is particularly egregious in the unscripted world, where carbon copies of shows such as Pawn Stars are now plentiful and singing competitions are proliferating. The trend is nothing new: In 1979, NBC's Real People inspired ABC's That's Incredible!, which launched the next year. After Who Wants to Be a Millionaire revived the game show in 1999, every network quickly aired a clone — and all of them looked suspiciously similar, right down to the dark stage and flashing lights. The Bachelor led to plenty of dating shows — including Fox's infamous Joe Millionaire.
These copycats may be annoying, but no judge has been willing to say that they're copyright infringement. Some can even be considered parody, like Fox's The Choice, which takes the famous spinning chairs of The Voice and applies it to a dating show. NBC, which is likely miffed over the idea, has been mum, as there's no law against spoofing the competition and any reaction would likely help promote The Choice.
Given the previous outcomes, CBS' odds of stopping The Glass House are long. "These types of lawsuits are extremely difficult for the plaintiffs to win," says entertainment lawyer Aaron Moss. "Copyright law prevents anyone from claiming protection in elements that are commonplace to the genre. These include basic staples of reality TV like contestants living in a house, competing in challenges and being voted off." (Otherwise, The Real World could probably sue everyone.)
ABC called the suit "meritless," arguing that Glass House is different in several ways. Others believe CBS is simply looking to put a little fear into ABC and make sure The Glass House is different. "They may just be trying to disrupt a competitor and scare the producers," says attorney Steve Smith.
Most clones are ratings duds, and even blip megahits like Joe Millionaire quickly fade away. But the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire fakes helped hasten its demise, and all the current singing shows are cannibalizing one another, so CBS is looking to protect Big Brother from losing its mojo.
As for the nondisclosure breach, Moss says, "This adds a different dimension to the case, but ultimately, in order to shut down Glass House, CBS will need to prove that the similarities show up on the screen." Careful, ABC: Big Brother is watching you.
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