Litigate this! It's likely to be the latest craze in the wacky and lucrative world of reality TV as industry leaders, including the international group that oversees format rights, predict the reality sector is about to become a battleground of format-rights disputes.
Independent producers of reality TV say they are being engulfed by a snowstorm of "paper pitches" for potential new reality shows, and it's only a matter of time before the courts are clogged with claims of copyright breaches related to look-alike reality concepts.
Reality TV formats have become the new El Dorado, said David Lyle, chairman of the Format Recognition and Protection Group. He likens the reality TV business to the national lottery, with potentially huge amounts of money up for grabs and everybody in the world seeming to have an idea for a new show.
As president of entertainment at FremantleMedia North America, Lyle also has hands-on experience as a producer with the runaway train that reality TV has become. "It's of huge concern now, not just about formats moving back and forth across the Atlantic, but also within all the international territories," he said. "We are seeing unscripted formats being pitched that are reduced to just three or four lines. The problem is that these are not true formats that can be protected; they are concepts, and this is fraught with potential legal problems."
Most producers say they are now building up stronger fire walls to protect them against unsolicited pitches from their barber, dentist and candlestick maker for fear of litigation down the road.
"I am 100% certain that lawsuits are going to clog this sector of the television business," said Phil Gurin, executive producer of "The Weakest Link" and a leading alternative reality producer. "Everybody thinks they have a reality TV show. Even my sister is pitching me. But I have had to become much more judicious about who I can listen to in terms of ideas. You literally stop taking pitches (in this environment)."
Lyle, Gurin and many other producers fear that the CBS/ABC lawsuit claiming that "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" contains elements of "Survivor" may have been the tip of the iceberg.
"Other cases are pending, we know that," Lyle said. FRAPA is looking to have format protection copyright written into European Union law and is examining the legal framework for reality shows in the United States.
Such cases have forced reality producers to pull up the drawbridge against unsolicited pitches. "We, like everybody else, have the usual unsolicited submission form," said Scott Stone, who with partner David Stanley heads one of the most successful independent reality production companies, Stone Stanley Entertainment. "But that does not stop people at the car wash or whatever from pitching you if they know you are in the business." The partners say that they have taken pitches "as a professional courtesy" from executives in other areas of the entertainment business, such as music or features, but as a rule have closed the door to all but agents and attorneys.
One film writer-producer, Aaron Butler, transitioned successfully into the reality genre with two shows in development -- one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom. "In film, an idea does not a script make, but the same cannot be said about reality shows," he said. "In the case of my projects, they were laid out from A to Z for the companies that they were pitched to, and there was a level of professional comfort. But producers are now very wary about taking outside pitches -- and with good reason."
Said producer Eric Schotz, CEO of LMNO Prods.: "Everybody and his mother has a reality show of some kind. You have people coming up to you at cocktail parties with ideas for reality shows. The caterer wants to do a show on the lifestyles of rich and famous caterers. Somebody else has an idea to do a show about the world's fastest accountants. There are a million ideas for psychic shows and cooking shows. And everybody has a new Ozzy (Osbourne)."
As with other reality production outfits, it's tough to get in the door these days to make a pitch at LMNO unless your agent or attorney is at your side. But Michel Rodrigue, CEO of Montreal-based Distraction Formats, said unsolicited concepts pour into production companies via e-mail.
"We get dozens of e-mails every week, and we are finding that we are growing much more concerned about protecting ourselves," said Rodrigue, whose company distributes formats. "You can shield yourself from the blind pitch and you can have your mail scrutinized for unsolicited pitches, but then you have all these e-mail ideas flooding into your offices."
Fremantle and FRAPA's Lyle added: "I have put up high fences because the business of reality has become a potential legal minefield. You can have somebody come in and pitch you an idea so generic and so unformed that you can't do anything with it. Then you might have somebody come in and pitch you a beautifully thought-out and formed concept, and you move to develop it. Then that first person comes knocking saying that this was their idea to begin with."
Gurin said he believes that the potential rights problems looming in the wake of the reality TV explosion will force many big program buyers worldwide -- including the U.S. networks -- to develop their new reality programs in-house in a legally sterile environment. "And I honestly believe that this, in the end, could be a huge threat to independents like me," he added.