A Case of Deja Vu?

`A Star is Born,' `The Ambassador,' `Project Y' and many other local TV shows are based on programs broadcast abroad. Based? There are those who say they are exact copies.

On Wednesdays, immediately after Nachman Shai, Jacob Perry and Rina Matzliah leave the wood-paneled conference room where they have sealed the fate of one of the participants in "The Ambassador," a Keshet program on Channel 2, one can switch to Channel 10 and see a similar conference room on the American reality show "The Apprentice," where three other decision-makers are seen facing a group of contenders, deciding their fates. FremantleMedia, the communications company that holds rights to television formats and represents "The Apprentice" in Europe, feels a little uncomfortable about the similarity between the new Israeli program and its American counterpart - a similarity in "feel and look," according to Deborah Johnson, a director of the company. They are now talking with "The Apprentice" creator Mark Burnett about what he wants to do regarding the matter.

According to Johnson, the company's ire was aroused when an article about "The Ambassador" was published in the British newspaper The Guardian, from which it was possible to understand - incorrectly - that the format had been purchased and altered. "This led us to examine the program closely. When we proposed to Keshet that they buy the format, they told us they didn't have time to integrate the show into their programming, so we sold both the format and the program itself to Channel 10. And then, miraculously, time was found for broadcasting a very similar show." (For Keshet's response to the charges that appear in this article, see box).

Inspiration or theft?

This case joins a series of cases in which similar charges have been made against programs that have been broadcast in Israel - among them "Project Y" on satellite and "A Star is Born" on Channel 2. All of these programs bring up the question of where the line between legitimate inspiration and theft is (at Yes, the satellite company, they have chosen not to respond to this article).

"A Star is Born" (which, like "The Apprentice," is a program of the Keshet Channel 2 franchisee), also reminded the Fremantle people of another program - the British "Pop Idol." However, says Johnson, "In the case of a talent show, it is more difficult to prove theft. All song contests are conducted in a studio with a shiny floor. The programs will resemble one another for other reasons. But in `The Ambassador,' because of the location of the filming in the conference room, the three individuals who sit facing two groups and the system of elimination, we have the impression that they have not made enough changes in the format to distinguish between the two programs."

"The moment we moved from game shows to reality television, things haven't been tight," says producer Haim Manor, who bought the format of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and put it on in Israel with Channel 2 franchisee Reshet. "`The Ambassador' and `The Apprentice' are the same thing, but the aim is different. Zvika Pik's show and `The Osbournes' sound similar, and the format really is similar, but the essence is difference. With fingerprints, a minimum of six points of identity is needed, and they won't be found here. In the international format market, everyone tries to be fair so that they won't be stolen from as well, but as man's nature is inherently bad from adolescence, stealing occurs."

"Four years ago there was a great deal of openness among the franchisees to the purchasing of formats from abroad," says producer Assaf Gil, who is responsible for "Date for a Straight" and the new "Shorts," both of which are broadcast by Telad and the formats of which were both purchased abroad, "but now there has been a change. There are broadcasting organizations that prefer not to buy, but to create, with or without quotation marks, programs of their own."

Pointing fingers

A lot of fingers are pointing at the Keshet franchisee, whose name has been linked with copying formats not only now with "The Apprentice" and in the past with "A Star is Born," but also with "Home Work," "Take Me Sharon," "Transformations" and "Yatzata Tzadik." But it is definitely not the only one. Telad's "House Hunting" and Reshet's "End of the Road" were obviously based on the American shows "The Amazing Race" and "Race to the Altar," the difference being, as Manor puts it, "There they embraced the world; here it is from Gedera to Hadera."

The three Channel 2 franchisees were in contact with Zvika Pik about making a reality show along the lines of "The Osbournes" (in the end, it will be shown on the Beep Channel, which belongs to Keshet), and even before it was decided at Channel 10 to buy "The Apprentice," serious discussions were held there about the production of a show very similar to Donald Trump's, which they thought of calling "The Deputy CEO." Reshet responds: "Reshet does not feel a need to explain or apologize for the success of runaway shows like `End of the Road,' about which there has never been, even by implication, any complaint at all."

And from Telad: "`House Hunting' was the most complex reality show in Israel, and the one in which there was the most investment. This is an original and unique format that was developed for Telad by Meimad Studios."

A source in the television industry who wishes to remain anonymous says of Keshet: "The biggest hypocrisy imaginable is that a franchisee with pretensions of furthering Israel's reputation in the Diaspora is systematically giving the country a reputation as a thief of formats." Another source from a large distribution company in Europe has said of the franchisee that it "casts a heavy shadow on an entire industry."

"It is very difficult to define what a format is," says Ran Telem, formerly development director for programs at Keshet and now heading entertainment at the Kan company, which is competing in the bidding for Channel 2. Telem, who also works as a producer at the Herzliya Studios, purchased the format for "Paradise Hotel," which in the end was not adapted into an Israeli program. Telem: "The story that `Project Y' was supposedly stolen from the `Big Brother' show is not new," says Telem. "It has already been around for two years. But maybe `Project Y' was in fact influenced by [British reality show] `The Farm'? There are all kinds of shows in which they shut people into various spaces, not necessarily `Big Brother.' There are 12 different formats in which they chose a star in talent competitions, 20 shows in the style of `Survivor' and another 30 in which a girl chooses her heart's desire. There are wars surrounding this all the time. Now American networks are suing Fox for stealing."

Of "Yatzata Tzadik," a show produced by Telem that was shown on Keshet, it was said that the format had been stolen from the British original "House of Horrors," a house in which they concealed cameras, then invited a technician and showed how he tries to cheat the inhabitants. The same sources in the industry say that not only was nothing paid for the original format, but that they tried to sell `Yatzata Tzadik' abroad afterwards as an original format, on the grounds that the English program looks for the bad guy and in Israel it looks for the good guy. "Nonsense," says Telem about these accusations. "`Yatzata Tzadik' is funny, and very soon they will discover that there are another three just like it. It is true that we too looked for the bad guy at first, but this changed. I don't know whether in the British program someone staged a maintenance problem - it's possible to develop a program like this in 27 different ways. This is what happens in the process of doing things."

All about ego

At a foreign company that distributes formats and programs, they say that in the formats market there is mutual respect, and that although there are many interpretations of a single format, there is an understanding as to who has the original rights, and the buying of formats preserves this state of affairs. Formats are not particularly expensive: Ami Amir of Matar Productions, which bought the format for "The Kumars at No. 42" and is now putting it on for the Reshet franchisee as "The Kamachili Family," talks about a sum of about $3,000 per episode, which is calculated into the overall budget.

If so, then why would a franchisee that has invested, according to rumors in the industry, $1.5 million in "The Ambassador" not pay a few tens of thousands of dollars for the format of "The Apprentice?" Assaf Gil's experience has led him to think that this is "a matter of ego. When I tried to buy the format of the `Sketch Show,' on which the Israeli `Shorts,' to be shown on Telad, was made - I encountered reactions like `Why buy it? What do you mean - aren't we talented enough?'"

Ran Telem offers another explanation: "What not everyone understands is that you buy a format not to ensure the idea, but for the knowledge behind it. Every program has a guide, called `the Bible,' and it is worth money to you. Keshet wants to make `The Ambassador' - it doesn't want Donald Trump. It is not looking for a business director. Imagine someone coming to McDonald's and telling the company they want to buy the rights to hamburger and make falafel from it."

The example does indeed paint a ridiculous picture, but there is a possibility of making such an agreement. Producer Assaf Gil bought the format of "Date for a Straight" with the knowledge of and in coordination with the makers, in the realization that changes would be made in the Israeli version, a process known as "conversion" - adapting the format to the target audience in Israel. Haim Manor says there are cases, as in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," in which there is no scope for change, but there are formats for which the expected changes are signed upon in advance at the time of purchase. There is also another explanation for the theft of formats that relies on the example of McDonald's. Attorney Hillel Sumar, a lecturer on communications law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says: "When they sell you a format, they dictate to you how it will look, a bit like a McDonald's meat patty. If you are creative, you will not want them to censor you. This is more disturbing than paying a few thousand dollars."

However, he says, buying a format is also buying its reputation. "If a game show like `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' is `the most watched in the United States,' this is already worth money. An example of a very interesting purchase is the British `The Kumars at No. 42.' If all that Reshet had wanted was to make a comedy about an annoying family of some ethnic origin in a talk show, they would not have needed to buy the rights. I imagine the original scripts don't include jokes about Yigal Shilon. But buying the format gives you a lot of professional shortcuts. It is enough that five out of 30 jokes in an episode are suitable, and you already have a good beginning. The prices aren't astronomical, and this also gives you some insurance against hassle."

Stealing from thieves

In a case when one organization claims that another organization has stolen a format from it, says Sumar, who advises television organizations from time to time, "the expression `he who steals from a thief is exempt' nearly applies. The most outstanding example is the following story: The European company Endemol, which is suing Yes for stealing the format of `Project Y,' is itself being sued by the British version of the American program `Survivor.' So at Endemol they said the television industry needs to develop and that ideas for programs are sometimes similar to one another; now all of a sudden the industry doesn't need to develop and the ideas are not similar?

"Keshet, which is now being charged, has also found itself on the other side. It is the owner of the game show `The Safe.' In Germany, they stole the format with minor changes. The round in `The Safe' that is called `head to head' here was called `eye to eye' in Germany. Keshet and Erez Tal, who conceived of the show, turned to German lawyers to find out what to do, and the answer was that their chances of winning the suit were zero." Fremantle is now being sued in New York for $7.5 million for stealing the format of the show called "The Complex." The suit was filed by a production company called "The Block," from New Zealand.

Sumar agrees with the argument that reality shows have reshuffled the deck. "What is interesting about reality television is that it is difficult to define what the format is there. There is a collection of ideas there, any single one of which is not protected, and what is protected is the sum of the unprotected elements."

The company that represents "The Apprentice" is talking about a similar "feel and look" between their show and "The Ambassador." Sumar: "`Feel and look' is a legal term. And there is another term, `total feel and look,' and only that is crucial. You have to see where the program will be going. There is already an element of immunity that does not exist in the original show, and as the show progresses it is possible that many more changes will appear."

"To date, in the entire world, only once has a court ruled that a television organization had stolen a format. This was in Brazil, and the show was very similar to `Big Brother.' But in that case Endemol representatives were involved. They flew all the way to Brazil, they revealed all the details, and the Brazilian television station said they were not interested in the show and in its stead put on a show that was almost identical to it.

"The courts in Britain, in Holland and in the United States have consistently rejected accusations of format theft, time after time," says Sumar. There have also been cases in Israel that have ended without a victory for those who filed the suit. The Israel Broadcasting Authority filed a suit against G.G. Studios for violating the format of Rafi Ginat's `Crimewatch' and lost. The court ruled at that time that the elements that supposedly had been copied were not original.

"There is protection in the law only against the total copying of an aggregate of unprotected elements. Inspiration and even heavy inspiration - there is no protection against them. In the future, perhaps because this is an industry that turns over a billion dollars a year, a solution will be found. Either there will be self-regulation (in the framework of the international framework organization FRAPA - the Format Recognition and Protection Association) that will have a mechanism for settling disputes, or legislation will come along."

In the meantime, if one wants to go for the sure thing, here is something that is 100 percent blue and white: "The Yeshiva," a docu-soap on Channel 10 that follows every step taken by young yeshiva students. They mull over settling in Neveh Dekalim, a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, "becoming stronger" for the sake of God and what exactly to do with the heritage of Yitzhak Rabin. This, apparently, no one will copy.