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Sued for Following Suit in TV-Land

By Ron Grover No one likes combat sport more than Leslie Moonves. In his Los Angeles office, the CBS president even keeps a punching bag, which no doubt came in handy for relieving stress when poor ratings sunk his new sitcom, Bram & Alice, after only four episodes this fall. More often than not, though, it has been Moonves standing over the TV fallen. This year, in fact, CBS is the only one of the four largest networks to have seen its audience grow. As of January, it's also the top-rated net in the land.

And Moonves doesn't mind putting up his dukes when it comes to the competition. Last year, the one-time actor came out swinging against ABC, which tried to lure away CBS's late-night talk-show host David Letterman. Now he's at it again, this time taking on one of the most time-honored of Hollywood traditions: The Great Pretender.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Hollywood must be the most sincere place on earth. Think about it. How many times have you flicked on the tube and thought you've seen a show before? Well, heck, you have! Despite all the creative geniuses who belly up to their tables at Spago, what Hollywood does best is repackage the same few concepts over and over.

PRETTY DARN CLOSE. Remember when Regis Philbin and his matching shirts and ties propelled Who Wants to be a Millionaire and the ABC network to ratings nirvana. How long did it take before every network had a new game show on the air, including some -- Fox's Greed comes to mind -- where the premise was pretty darn close and even the sets looked a lot alike. (Never mind that the British version of Millionaire debuted across the pond a year before ABC's edition.)

But now Moonves wants to take on the TV show look-alike strategy in the most aggressive maneuver -- a lawsuit. Sure, Hollywood sues all the time. Brooding writers think their books have been plagiarized, producers figure their ideas have been swiped. Even Steven Spielberg got called to the witness stand a few years back, accused by an author of ripping off her book when he made the movie Amistad. Ultimately, she and Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG studio settled after a judge had initially ruled against her.

This is the first time I can recall a network executive screaming plagiarism. And given Moonves' track record of not backing away from a fight, this legal fight will likely go the distance. Filed on Nov. 7, the suit claims that a new ABC show, I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, was "consciously designed to mimic" CBS's megahit Survivor and asked that ABC be banned from airing it as scheduled in February -- when the next Survivor installment is also expected to run.

In court documents, ABC claims that idea of the show was developed independently of Survivor and that the network would be suffer "irreparable harm" if the court blocked its airing. District Court Judge Loretta Preska is expected to rule on Jan. 13. Neither ABC nor CBS would comment for this article.

B-LIST CELEBS. I have to admit that the two shows do sound a lot alike. ABC's is expected to look very similar to the show of the same name that aired and was a huge hit last year on the British network ITV (home of the original Millionaire). In the ITV show, eight B-list celebrities were stranded in a remote part of Australia -- the site, by the way, of the second Survivor show, in early 2001. The British version attracted a huge audience of 9 million folks, many of whom voted by phone to kick someone out of the group each week.

Before the votes, the contestants competed against one another in a series of athletic competitions foraged for food, like those on Survivor. The winners were given rewards, such as food or drink. (Survivor, like Millionaire, was a European show first. But both those clones were produced with the happy cooperation of their parents.)

That Moonves and CBS want to protect one of their crown jewels is understandable. Even though the network has seen ratings decline from the first installment of Survivor, when Richard Hatch and his 15 fellow castaways washed up on that island in the South Pacific, it's still a top 10 show and a guaranteed magnet for younger viewers. So CBS didn't waste time rushing to court, pulling out the big gun -- Moonves -- who testified that CBS would be harmed if ABC airs its show. To buttress its legal arguments, CBS also enlisted Robert Thompson, the highly regarded TV expert from Syracuse University, whose side-by-side comparison of the two shows found several similarities.

RATINGS BOOSTER? This isn't the first time CBS has gone to court to protect its Survivor franchise. Last spring, it sued Fox in a bid to block Rupert Murdoch's network from airing Boot Camp, in which folks compete against one another, get barked at by former drill sergeants, and are voted off the show. Like most Hollywood lawsuits, this battle was quietly settled, and Fox got to air its show.

Funny thing is Boot Camp's ratings were never higher than in the first few weeks just after the lawsuit. Then it trailed downward toward Nielsen's netherland. Which makes you wonder whether Moonves and his broadside attack actually gave the show a bit more prominence than it deserved -- and if suing ABC could do the same. Of course, Survivor will get mentioned a lot, too.

Ironically, ABC should be plenty mad itself about having one of its top shows cloned. On Jan. 7, Fox scored a major ratings coup with Joe Millionaire, which looks a lot like ABC's hit, The Bachelor, in which a single guy gets to choose between a bevy of beautiful single women. (O.K., so Fox has a twist: The "millionaire" is really a salaried construction worker, but you get the point.) Perhaps if ABC weren't in the middle of its own legal battle over I'm a Celebrity, it might be heading to court to stop Fox.

QUIET END? I'm not sure that Moonves will win. The judge may well rule that CBS hasn't proved any immediate danger to the Survivor franchise and will allow ABC to go ahead. Chances are, though, that the CBS boss would appeal. And if the ABC show is successful, Moonves and CBS will be likely look for damages of a major order. Still, Hollywood legal battles usually end up in some kind of settlement, so I wouldn't be surprised in CBS and Moonves come to some agreement for an undisclosed amount of money.

That would free up all the players, allowing them to devote their time to something much more important: finding more ideas to recycle. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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