How thinking up a good TV format can make you a millionaire or screw you with a horrendous court case

Last weekend I posted a blog about Mr Methane phoning me from Manchester Airport on his way home from recording a TV show in Denmark. It turned out he wasn’t on his way home. He is still away on his professional travels – farting around the world, some might call it – but he has given me more details of the Danish show he appeared in.

He was brought on stage as Mr Methane and farted in the face of a man whom he had to make laugh within 60 seconds. Mr Methane tells me:

“The show comes out in Denmark in the autumn and is called My Man Can: the ladies bet on what their man will be able to achieve and he has fuck-all idea what’s going on because he is in a glass cylinder listening to Take That or some other shite music that’s being piped in. It’s a bit like a modern day Mr & Mrs with a slightly different twist so Derek Batey doesn’t see them in court.”

It does sound a bit like that to me too and I also thought Derek Batey created the TV gameshow Mr and Mrs but, in fact, it was created by the legendary Canadian TV quiz show uber-creater Roy Ward Dickson

TV formats are big business. I remember the ATV series Blockbusters hosted by Bob Holness (the request “Give me a pee, Bob” was oft-quoted by fans).

It was based on a US format and, in the UK, was networked on ITV from 1983 to 1993. In one period, I think in the late 1980s, it ran every day around teatime Monday to Friday. From memory (and I may be wrong on details) at that time the format creators were getting £5,000 per show and the show was transmitted for six months every year – I think they transmitted for three months, then had three months off air, then transmitted for another three months and so on.

That is serious money in the late 1980s. To save you the calculation, 26 x 6 x £5,000 = £780,000 per year for a format thought up several years before; and the format was also running on US TV and in several other countries around the world and, for all I know, could still be running in several countries around the world 25 years later.

That is why format ownership and copyright is so important. If you have an idea, it can maintain your millionaire status 25 years down the line. Ripping-off formats is an extraordinary phenomenon. You would think, given the amount of money involved, that there would be some workable law against it, but there isn’t. One factor, of course, is that you cannot copyright an idea; you can only copyright a format and there lies the rub that will probably stop you and me becoming millionaires.

My Man Can, for example, is most definitely not a rip-off of Mr and Mrs. The format of My Man Can is that “four women gamble with the abilities their partners possess – and put the men’s courage and skills to the test. She sits at a gambling table and bets her rivals that her man can accomplish certain tasks. He waits helplessly in a soundproof cubicle, waiting to hear the task his wife has accepted on his behalf. Each of the women is given 100 gambling chips which she uses to bet on her partner’s performance in each round of the game.”

The most definitive horror story I know about formats is the scandalous failure of Hughie Green to get the courts’ protection over the format to his Opportunity Knocks talent show.

Green first started Opportunity Knocks as a radio show in 1949. As a TV series, it ran from 1956 to 1978 and was later revived with Bob Monkhouse and Les Dawson presenting 1987-1990.

Hughie Green invented a thing called “the clap-o-meter” which measured the decibel volume of clapping by the studio audience after an act had performed. But the acts were voted-on by viewers and Green’s several catch-phrases included “Tonight, Opportunity Knocks for…” and “Don’t forget to vote-vote-vote. Cos your vote counts.”

The way I remember the copyright problem is that, one day in the 1980s, Hughie Green got a letter from the Inland Revenue asking why, on his tax return, he had not declared his royalties from the New Zealand version of Opportunity Knocks in 1975 and 1978. This was the first time he knew there was a New Zealand version.

It turned out the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation had transmitted a TV talent show series which not only ran along the same lines as Hughie Green’s show but which was actually titled Opportunity Knocks, had a clap-o-meter to measure audience clapping and used the catchphrases “Tonight, Opportunity Knocks for…” and “Don’t forget to vote-vote-vote. Cos your vote counts.”

Not surprisingly, in 1989, Green sued the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation for copyright infringement. He lost. He appealed. He lost. My memory is that it ultimately reached the House of Lords in London, sitting as the highest court of appeal in the Commonwealth. He lost. Because all the courts decided that a largely unscripted show which was different every week (which is what a talent show is) with “a loose format defined by catchphrases and accessories” (such as the clap-o-meter) was not copyrightable and “there were no formal scripts and no ‘format bible’ to express the unique elements that made up the show”.

In 2005, Simon Fuller sued Simon Cowell claiming that Cowell’s The X-Factor was a rip-off of Fuller’s own Pop Idol. The case was quickly adjourned and settled out of court within a month. Copyright disputes are not something you want to take to court.

Once upon two times, I interviewed separately the former friends Brian Clemens (main creative force behind The Avengers TV series) and Terry Nation (who created the Daleks for Doctor Who). BBC TV had transmitted a series called Survivors 1975-1977 which Terry Nation had created. Or so he said. Brian Clemens claimed he had told Terry Nation the detailed idea for Survivors several years before and Nation had ripped him off. It destroyed their friendship.

As I say, I interviewed both separately.

I can tell you that both of them absolutely, totally believed they were in the right.

Brian Clemens absolutely 100% believed he had told Terry Nation the format and had been intentionally ripped-off.

Terry Nation absolutely 100% believed that Survivors was his idea.

They fought a case in the High Court in London and, eventually, both abandoned the case because of the astronomically-mounting costs. Neither could afford to fight the case.

There’s a lesson in legal systems here.

Basically, even if you are fairly wealthy, you cannot afford to defend your own copyright. If you are fighting as individuals, the legal fees will crucify you. If  you are foolish enough to fight any large company, they have more money to stretch out legal cases longer with better lawyers than you. They will win. In the case of Hughie Green, even if you are rich and famous, you may be no different from a man who is wearing a blindfold and who, when he takes it off, finds someone is farting in his face.

When BBC TV remade Survivors in 2008, it was said to be “not a remake of the original BBC television series” but “loosely based on the novel of the same name that Nation wrote following the first season of the original series.”

Guess why.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Legal system, Radio, Television, Theatre

2 responses to “How thinking up a good TV format can make you a millionaire or screw you with a horrendous court case

  1. Copyright then! – The next few months should be interesting as the BBC are doing a – quote – ‘rip off of “You Bet!”‘the old ITV show of years gone by and the only reason I know this is that was the premise of the e-mail that arrived one morning not so long ago in my mail box and would I be ‘prepared’ to take part? – the person involved came to see me, thought I was ‘wonderful’ (they all do it seems..) and I never heard from him again!
    You would have thought with all the cash sloshing about and the supposed ‘creative talent’ they have, they could at least have come up with a fresh idea, but there you go!
    Since then it would appear my vistor shortly left the BBC after I saw him and joined ITV to work on a show called “Show Me The Funny”, so hope he lasts a bit longer on that one.. So I will sit and watch the BBC ‘version’ of “You Bet!” in the coming months – maybe..

  2. Ash

    Hughie Green also developed Double Your Money, which was remarkably similar to the US show the $64,000 Question. Both shows were, most likely, developed seperately and it is just a coincidence that both appeared around the same time. But the developers of both were probably quite surprised when the worldwide franchised hit Who Wants To Be A Millionare came along, seeing as it was basically just an updated version with a few minor tweaks to make it a “new format.”

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