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Fox Under Fire: Part Two

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While Fox News fends off twin attacks from the new “documentary” Outfoxed and the New York Times Magazine, the flagship Fox network was slammed this week with allegations of “theft” from rivals NBC and ABC:

NBC executives over the weekend, in press sessions with TV critics who are gathered here to preview fall programs, had slammed Fox, which in the past months has announced copies of both NBC’s “The Contender” and ABC’s “Wife Swap.”

The difference between Fox’s current strategy and the long-established industry practice of copying successful shows is that Fox will put its copies on the air first.

In the case of “The Contender,” Fox lost a bidding war with NBC, then announced it would stage a similar boxing show, “The Next Great Champ,” and air it before “The Contender.” Said Sylvester Stallone, host and producer of “The Contender,” “Bootlegging has finally made it to prime time.”

ABC echoed NBC’s criticism. ABC’s new entertainment president, Stephen McPherson, now on a honeymoon in Paris, addressed the critics via satellite hookup.

“If I was a member of the creative community,” said McPherson, “it would be incredibly disconcerting to me that if you take a show into Fox, and they can’t, don’t or decide not to buy it, they will steal it. Plain and simple.

“I think it’s really upsetting, I think it’s bad for the business, I think it’s bad for the broadcast networks, and I don’t think it’s right. …

“It’s one thing to do a direct rip-off, it’s another thing to do something that’s inspired by, or moves in a new direction off an existing idea.”

Fox president Gail Berman fired back today:

“Multiple projects with similar themes are being pitched simultaneously,” Berman said. “We are constantly striving to find the next new big idea while exploring ideas in the popular culture. In the creative world, ideas are fluid, and no one can claim sole ownership of an entire arena. People who are acting as if they invented the sport of boxing are disingenuous at the least.”

Berman said it is the nature of the television business to have similarly themed programming, and pointed to the fact that a trio of networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — all aired telefilms about the notorious “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher in late 1992 and early 1993 as an example.

“There’s nothing new about this; this is a competitive business,” Berman said. “Producers see what’s working and come up with another take on it; this is the way the business works. … It’s unfortunate that they’ve created some sort of drama around something that is the way business works in television and, frankly, the movie business.”

Of course, Berman is completely correct. The entertainment business, particularly during the past decade, has proved that imitation is almost always favored over innovation. Witness scores of similarly-themed films (Volcano and Dante’s Peak, Armageddon and Deep Impact, A Bug’s Life and Antz) released within weeks of each other by rival studios. Not to mention endless Britney and Christina clones churned out wholesale by every music label, all indistinguishable from each other.

But nowhere is the rampant appropriation of ideas more common than prime time television. Original and unique fare is almost non-existent on the Big Four networks, all of which prefer the safe, built-in audiences that come with sitcoms and crime dramas. These days, shows that truly break new ground by trying to do something different or new inevitably appear on cable, as the networks consider them far too risky. Fox is playing the game that all of the networks have been playing for a long time; it’s just playing it better.

Does the average viewer care that NBC’s boxing show came before Fox’s, or that ABC’s wife-swapping show came first? Of course not. The bluster by Fox’s rivals amounts to nothing more than a flailing attempt to gain a few headlines. Ultimately, these shows will sink or swim on the whim of the viewers. Yes, Fox has the advantage of being first-to-market this time, but the other nets will not likely be fooled again.

Note: Part One of this article discussed “Outfoxed,” a new documentary exploring alleged right-wing bias at Fox News.

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