By Ronald Grover You know something is wrong with the state of the network-TV business when the heaviest buzz is about the barbs the brass are throwing at one another, not about the shows they're pushing. Sad but true -- insults and accusations were the hottest stuff laid out last week when the network biggies assembled for the Television Critics Assn. meeting in Los Angeles.
First, you had NBC (GE) Studio Chief Jeff Zucker taking aim at Fox (FOX) for allegedly "stealing" the essentials of NBC's The Contender -- a reality show with Sylvester Stallone about training a champion boxer -- and hustling out its own version, The Next Great Champion. According to scuttlebutt, creator Mark Burnett pitched The Contender to Fox, which turned it down and then started work on its own show. Fox is aiming to launch The Next Great Champion in November, before NBC can get its show on the air. "Fox used to be innovators, now they're imitators," groused NBC Universal TV Group President Jeff Zucker during his presentation.
SEQUELS AND SPIN-OFFS. Fox also took it on the chin from Stephen McPherson, ABC's new head of prime-time programming. McPherson called in from his honeymoon in Paris to complain that Fox was pilfering ABC's show Wife Swap, in which two women temporarily switch families. Wife Swap is due out in September, while Fox's Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy is scheduled to start July 20.
"They'll steal it, plain and simple," griped McPherson about Fox and the new shows. Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman responded that "allegations of theft and extortion are outrageous and unacceptable."
And she's absolutely right. Face it, boys and girls. The high-stakes TV business boils down to ideas and execution -- the best execution, not the quickest, and certainly not the best idea. How seriously can you take chastising competitors for lack of originality when sequels and spin-offs run rampant, and crime and legal dramas are constantly begetting copycats on other networks? If The Contender can generate heat and attract viewers, then it will be a hit regardless of whether The Next Great Champion beats it to the airwaves. "You take ideas wherever they come from, you get them on the air. That's the nature of the business," sums up WB Network Chairman Garth Ancier.
MORE MAGIC? Still, you can't completely blame NBC and ABC for their protests. Despite its iron-fisted grip on the 18-34 age group that advertisers crave, NBC has seen its ratings fall by 5% among total viewers and by about 1% among younger demographics. With both Friends and Frasier now off air (except for ubiquitous repeats), the network has the frantic scent of a champ who isn't sure he can defend his title. NBC had better hope that Joey, its Friends spin-off starring Matt LeBlanc, works, and that the Donald and The Apprentice can make magic the second time around.
ABC's ratings are more or less in free-fall. With last season's ratings down by 10%, its Walt Disney (DIS) parent has brought in its third show-picker in four years in the guise of McPherson. The irony is that ABC has a couple of programs that are generating interest from the critics, including a dark one-hour comedy called Desperate Housewives, which is a Dawson's Creek-like soap opera for 30-ish women.
ABC also has high hopes for Lost, about a group of plane-crash survivors marooned on an island. The network's problem is that not a whole lot of folks are tuning into its shows of any sort these days, making the task of plugging its new programs that much harder.
TRUE "SURVIVOR." What's really amazing to me is that after all this time, so many network folks still don't get that copycat programming can be the most sincere form of flattery. CBS didn't get that back in 2001, when it filed a suit against Fox's Boot Camp. CBS said Boot Camp copied its hugely popular Survivor by including such gimmicks as voting folks out of camp and forcing them to perform physical tasks. Eventually, the sides settled, Fox made some minor changes -- and Boot Camp was quickly dispatched to the Nielsen graveyard.
CBS also sued over the ABC show I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here, claiming that, too, was a Survivor rip-off. CBS lost the suit, Celebrity aired to tepid ratings, and is also no more. Survivor, meanwhile, remains one of the strongest franchises on the air.
Imitation is also one of the most expensive forms of flattery. When Regis Philbin and his matching shirts and ties ruled Nielsen as host of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, every network seemed to have its own game show on the air in minutes. (Remember Maury Povich in NBC's short-lived Twenty-One? I thought not.) Hardly any lasted more than a half-season.
WORKS BOTH WAYS. The lesson for network folks is they should save use their resources for execution, not fighting. And better to spend money on programming than legal fees. "It's about the content, stupid," says CBS Chairman Les Moonves.
So here's the secret, TV execs. If a show is well-done, folks will find it. Remember when CBS trotted out Chicago Hope the same season that NBC put ER on the air? ER became a ratings giant, spawning stars like George Clooney and Noah Wiley. Chicago Hope was an also-ran at best. The concepts weren't all that different. Think about it: Even NBC's The Apprentice doesn't look all that different from Survivor, with the Donald's "you're fired" just a Manhattan version of being voted off the island.
And let's not forget that some of TV's most recent hits -- including both Survivor and American Idol -- were copied from foreign versions of the same show, just gussied up and made more American.
So the imitation game works both ways. Jeff Zucker can grip all he wants about Fox having lost its creative spark. But the nature of network TV is to find the best show out there -- whether you've made it or not -- and do it slightly differently and a little bit better. It may not be creativity at its best, but all's fair in love, war -- and the battle for Nielsen ratings. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online