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Name Game Blame

An otherworldly battle is afoot between The History Channel and Sci Fi Channel over UFO Hunters—which ran on both networks on the same night at the same time (Jan. 30 at 10 p.m.). The issue: Different shows, different producers, same name.

The networks are sparring over just which one had the rights to the name first. AETN-owned History says it was first with the idea and the name, having filed for a trademark last October, while NBC Universal-owned Sci Fi filed six days later.

History's series, from Motion Picture Production Inc., is a reincarnation of an episode of the network's 2005 series UFO Files, which ran some 30 times to decent ratings, hence the greenlight to series. Sci Fi has had success with a series called Ghost Hunters, hence the spin off the UFO show from Pilgrim Films and Television. Sci Fi premiered it as a special and is developing a series.

After History sent Sci Fi a letter saying it was in violation of the former's trademark filing, History moved up its UFO Hunters premiere date to Jan. 30. Sci Fi moved up its own premiere to the same day. The network said in a statement that its show has been in development for a year and is “the perfect companion series to cable's No. 1 paranormal franchise.”

The battle is as old as TV itself, and one that goes on in every development cycle—networks scramble to clone whatever is the hit genre or series of the day to steal ratings and advertising bounty. Sometimes these efforts have led to legal action—remember NBC trying to keep The Next Great Champ off Fox because of its similar The Contender? Or ABC's suing Fox over Trading Spouses, alleging it was a Wife Swap rip-off? The list goes on.

Shows have also borne the same names, although generally not at the same time; NBC's hit medical drama ER came a decade after a CBS sitcom by the same name; the hit 1980s sitcom Growing Pains aired 30 years after the comedy Growing Paynes on the short-lived DuMontNetwork.

Legal action isn't expected here. Sci Fi and History are corporate cousins; History parent AETN is a joint venture of The Hearst Corp., ABC Inc. and Sci Fi-owner NBC Universal. Plus, such lawsuits are usually settled out of court or get tossed out as not significantly harmful to networks' bottom lines.

“It's a very hard claim to prove because there are about seven stories out there and anything's a variation on them,” says TV historian Tim Brooks, author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.

Still, look for similar battles to heat up in the coming weeks, especially on cable, as the writers' strike continues to deprive broadcast networks of original dramas, which makes reality more attractive and high-profile viewing than it otherwise might have been.

Lifetime, Bravo and MTV, for example, are all set to premiere dance shows in the coming weeks. MTV's Randy Jackson Presents: America's Best Dance Crew premieres Feb. 7; Lifetime's mother-daughter competition, Your Mama Don't Dance, debuts Feb. 29; and Bravo is readying a premiere date for Step It Up & Dance. Fox's So You Think You Can Dance? is gearing up for a fourth season.

Explicitly created as knock-offs or not, such copycatting is a thorn in network executives' sides. But they say they expect it and try to make their shows stand out with network-specific twists and tonality.

“You always have to consider what's out there competitively and wait and see whether there's going be enough space for all these shows,” says Sandy Varo, Lifetime's VP of reality series. “That's part of the nature of this business. It's our hope that there is, or we wouldn't have bought the show we did.”

As for battle UFO, Sci Fi came out on top in week one. The network's show edged out History's in adults 25-54: 754,000 to 692,000, according to early results from Nielsen.