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Fit to be Tied

The new trend in reality TV buying is defensive development: Hoard it before the competition does. 8/08/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Making a reality TV hit just isn't what it used to be. Refined network executives are accusing each other of outright piracy. Outraged producers are filing suits over pilfered ideas, and shows are now being developed under fictitious names. Pitch meetings are cloak-and-dagger affairs.

The competition to launch a hit has reached such a frenzy that networks are not only purloining reality concepts from one another, they're buying them only to hide them away.

Elegant in its simplicity, the ploy is as old as Hollywood: Buy a concept for a new show, not to make it but to shelve
it—simply so a competitor can't have it.

True to Hollywood style, the honchos who hoard have coined their own genteel term for the practice: defensive development. "The stakes are so high and the marketplace so incredibly competitive that the [big broadcast] networks are taking things off the playing field just to tie them up," says Kevin Beggs, president of programming and production for Lions Gate Television, producer of The WB's No Boundaries,
in which 15 contestants tried to be the first to reach the Arctic Circle, and UPN's Iron Chef USA, where two chefs vie in a culinary battle.

Mike Fleiss, creator and executive producer of ABC hit The Bachelor, says he was a victim of defensive development "in a big way" but declines to name the show or the network involved. "It's something that is just deplorable. It's bad for our business," he says, "and it's bad for viewers."

Once considered cheap spackle used to patch holes in crumbling network schedules, reality is now TV's hottest commodity, delivering buzz, big ratings and solid advertising on warp-speed production schedules and at relatively bargain prices. The rewards can be lucrative: At its height, Fox's American Idol
commanded up to $500,000 for every 30-second commercial.

Last season, according to Nielsen, seven of the top 20 shows in total viewers were reality shows, including Idol
(No. 1), CBS's Survivor: All Stars
(4), and NBC's The Apprentice
(6) and Fear Factor
(19). ABC's top-rated show (other than NFLMonday Night Football) was another reality contrivance, The Bachelor
(No. 24).

An astonishing 21 shows devoted to reality appear on this fall's schedule—and that's just the broadcast networks. The Big Four aren't worrying just about each other; they're equally concerned about upstarts The WB and UPN (where reality subjects range from Amish youth to America's Next Top Model, its highest-rated show) and a wave of cable outlets in the same arena. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
put Bravo on the map.

"The other part of this frenzy is that the cablers have enjoyed incredible success with reality," says Randy Barbato, co-president of World of Wonder, the independent producer behind Bravo's reality success Showbiz Moms & Dads. "So now you have broadcast networks competing with cablers for programming."

Although it might seem counterproductive for a network to pay good money to option an idea—one step short of a production deal—"it's a bit of a chess game," says Beggs. "A pitch may come in that may not be particularly right for one network but could be really great for another." Defensive development goes beyond offering up the most money, he says; it's about not letting the idea leave the room.

In many ways, the hoarding and thievery expose the desperation fueling the drive to score a reality hit, particularly while the public is still hungry for the genre. Most network executives are fearful of getting scooped by the next big idea.

In some cases, the fears aren't unfounded. Increasingly in reality TV, it's just as important to keep a competitor from snagging a hit as it is to air one. For example, Fox's juggernaut American Idol
makes a mess of Tuesday night for the other networks.

"Before, the buyers would just shrug when a decent new idea came in," says one independent producer speaking on condition of anonymity. "Now they're putting their money on the table, telling us not to talk about it to anyone else and locking up the deal."

Endeavor agent Sean Perry says that kind of defense only works when the project lacks leverage and the dollar amounts are relatively modest. "If you have name people attached, a quality producer or talent, you're going to make the networks step up with a production commitment, by which they guarantee they're going to do, say, six episodes at $800,000 an episode. At that point, it's too pricey to be taking it off the market. You're talking about $4.8 million. It just wouldn't happen."

A handful of creators and production companies are behind most of the successful shows. Proven producers like Mark Burnett (Survivor) and Mike Fleiss (The Bachelor) and production companies such as FremantleMedia (American Idol, The Swan) and Endemol (Fear Factor, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) have come to expect all-out bidding wars for sexy new concepts.

CBS won the bidding for Burnett's upcoming Rock Star, a reality contest to find a new lead singer for Australian rock band INXS slated for summer 2005. But that hasn't stopped others from considering a proposed reality series about finding a replacement for Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, a member of the 1990s R&B trio TLC, who died in a car crash.

The pitch meetings vary in length and intensity. Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group, says the fastest he has ever said yes to an idea was The Apprentice. The pitch—and purchase—took less than 30 minutes. Zucker immediately liked Burnett's notion of building a reality show around big business, but the link to a Xerox-proof personality sealed the deal. "There is only one Donald Trump," he says. "Our philosophy is to have unique ideas that can't be easily and readily copied."

Hardly anyone can lay claim to a totally original idea. Americans' fixation on reality can be traced back to the 1970s, when PBS's An American Family
turned its cameras on the Loud family, which begat MTV's Real World,
which begat CBS's Big Brother. Even before that, there was Candid Camera, which begat MTV's Punk'd.

And because the courts have ruled that reality-TV ideas, unlike scripted shows, are virtually impossible to protect from imitation, the new season will be awash in a sea of reality lookalikes.

Fox has drawn the most fire for taking a competitor's idea and airing a similar show first. The network's Trading Spouses, which beat ABC's fall show Wife Swap
to the air, is already pulling in respectable ratings. Fox also plans to beat NBC to the punch with its boxing reality show The Next Great Champ.

When Zucker recently accused Fox of stealing ideas, he declared that its programmers were no longer "innovators" but "imitators." "Disconcerting," chimed in ABC's Stephen McPherson. Fox's Gail Berman has called the allegations of theft "baseless," "outrageous" and "unacceptable."

"There are no horribly original ideas out there," says Endeavor's Perry. "As an example, when we sold Extreme Makeover
to ABC, Fox's [Executive Vice President of Alternative Programming & Specials] Mike Darnell called and said, 'I can't believe you beat us to the punch. I had this show in development for a year, and they wouldn't pull the trigger.'"

Perry says that what we're witnessing now is the genre's inevitable maturing process. In the slugfests to come, he says, "I would predict that quality will always rise up above speed. If I said to you, I want to do a show with two apartments in the same New York building and it's about a bunch of friends. You might say, 'Okay, great. Now show me the writer. Show me the vision.' It's about execution."

Additional reporting by Paige Albiniak

Coming This Fall
The Amazing Race 6 CBS
America's Next Top Model UPN
The Apprentice 2 NBC
The Bachelor ABC
The Benefactor ABC
The Billionaire Fox
The Casino ABC
The Contender NBC
Cops Fox
Extreme Makeover ABC
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition ABC
Fear Factor NBC
Last Comic Standing NBC
The Next Great Champ Fox
The Partner Fox
The Simple Life 2 Fox
Survivor: Vanuatu CBS
The Swan 2 Fox
Wife Swap ABC
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition ABC
The Partner Fox
September
October