Reality TV Gets Really Litigious

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Drill Instructor Rosenbum coaxes a recruit on 'Boot Camp'

Even TV reviewers charmed by "Boot Camp" didn't miss the similarities between Fox's new military-themed reality TV show and the giant of the genre, "Survivor." Man struggles with challenging Reality TV circumstances, man talks about man to cameraman, man votes off man in ritualized social Darwinism.

In the entertainment business, it's known as a "rip-off," and it's all too common.

To CBS and Survivor Productions, though, it's copyright infringement, and they're suing over similarities both structural and aesthetic, including the use on "Boot Camp" of "romantic landscape photography and picturesque shots of wildlife." (Have those been patented?) And they've also got an industry tale to tell that says a lot about why so many TV shows, reality and non-, look so much alike: CBS passed on "Boot Camp" first.

According to the lawsuit, "Boot Camp" producers LMNO pitched CBS on the show last June, with one twist: The drill sergeants — those real-life Marine "save the drama for yer mama" guys with the big hats — would do the voting off.

Interesting. CBS passed.

But when Fox bought the show, that format must have sounded a little too, well, different. According to the suit, Fox promptly hired Scott Messick, a producer of the original "Survivor," as executive producer of "Boot Camp." (Yes, the suit does accuse Messick of illegally divulging trade secrets, and names him as a defendant.) And the voting off by drill sergeants — the one thing besides the military setting that might have made the show different and refreshing, not to mention more realistic — was one of the first things to go. Contestants would vote each other off. That was what worked for CBS. That was what "Boot Camp" would do.

Let the judge watch the tapes. This lawsuit gets at a bigger Reality TV issue: Who is the most exciting TV enemy — man, nature or authority? In the two shows' current forms, Jeff Probst and the drill sergeants match up (thematically, if not physically) as authority-figure facilitators. Both deliver the rules, make life plenty lousy for the contestants, and stir up a little conflict along the way. Nature, be it the Outback or Parris Island, heaps on some abuse, and certainly the setting is the biggest difference between the two. But the real damage — the voting off — is done by the contestants.

Now, Mark Burnett and CBS didn't invent social Darwinism, and Fox's lawyers may be able to wriggle out of this one on universal-themes grounds alone. But what would have happened had they gone the other way, and put the real power in the hands of the drill sergeants?

It might have worked even better. To any military man, the idea of fellow recruits voting each other out of the service is just ludicrous enough to sour them on watching the show. The figures that in reality would be the real authority, and scary ones at that — the drill sergeants — are on Reality TV stripped of their realism, because they've been stripped of their power to expel. They become cartoonish. Ridiculous. Probstian.

Come to think of it, it's surprising the Marines aren't suing.