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Reality Check, Please!

To hear TV programmers fulminate on Fox's spate of reality knockoffs last week, you would think they had violated some sacred programming-industry vow of intellectual chastity. The suggestion was both astounding and ludicrous, even amid the gamesmanship of the annual critics press tour, which is often astounding and ludicrous itself.

DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, who with Mark Burnett is creator of The Contender, which Fox clearly copied, seemed absolutely stunned by the thievery. "If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then theft is the lowest form of creativity," he told critics. "I've never experienced anything like this in my 30 years in Hollywood. The sanctity of an idea was an ideal I was taught from the very moment I arrived."

There was more, but you get the picture.

Gamesmanship, of course, is the fun part of show business, but there is something about the use of the words sanctity
and ideal
to describe the piranha-eat-piranha world of TV programming that engenders insuppressible laughter. The medium is nothing if not one of imitation.

TV programmers are ever willing to chase the latest trend like a pack of bloodhounds—though in this case the fox has turned the tables, and capitalizes its name. Knockoffs abound and are not confined to Fox. But Fox's strategy of "pre-knocking" off ideas to steal some summer ratings thunder before the competition's fall launch looks (we hate to say it) unique to us.

We saw more thievery midweek, when Fox revealed that it was planning to launch a digital cable network devoted to a mix of off-Fox and original reality. It's nice to note that, even there, a group of private investors had announced the Reality Central channel in April 2003, which is due to start later this year. Somehow we don't think that's going to stop Fox. In television, the "sanctity of an idea" doesn't wash if someone else can do it quicker, better, or to a bigger audience.

Conventional Minds

The sad fact is that only half the people vote. So it's hard to get them jazzed up when even the broadcast networks can't give more than an hour a night, once every four years, to the process of launching the campaigns for the most powerful office on the planet. Cutthroat copycatting extends to the news divisions, too.

That's too bad. If networks can give two hours to the launch of a knockoff reality show, they should be able to give two hours a night to the potential political makeover of the nation and, these days, the world. By not doing so, viewers get the message that whatever else the networks are putting on that night—fill in the blank—is more important than the process of picking a president. Is that reality? No. Especially not in 2004.