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Networks' Reality Scuffle Tortures 'Chamber'

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - With ratings for reality and quiz shows fading, networks and producers are fighting to lay claim to fresh formats with breakout potential -- even if it means going to court to do so.

New Zealand-based independent producer Julie Christie and her Touchdown Prods. banner -- with the full backing of ABC -- is suing Fox Broadcasting and Dick Clark Prods. for copyright infringement and breach of confidence. Christie claims "The Chamber,'' a new quizzer from Dick Clark just given a six-episode green light by Fox, is a blatant rip-off of a series she's producing for ABC called "The Chair.'' While Christy is currently seeking unspecified financial damages, industry insiders believe ABC or Christie may eventually seek a temporary restraining order against Fox to block the premiere of "The Chamber,'' though such a move would be a long shot. For now, Fox and ABC are scrambling to get their respective shows on air as soon as possible.

"The Chair'' puts players in a pod-like environment, hooks them up to a heart monitor and requires them to maintain a certain heart rate while answering questions -- or else risk losing money. Various "surprises'' are thrown in to make it more difficult to stay steady.

Fox is keeping details of "The Chamber'' more vague, though the network's reality programming chief, Mike Darnell, said it will "take people and throw them into this chamber where they will then be put under enormous environmental, physiological and physical challenges (as they) answer questions. It could get really intense.''

Darnell -- interviewed before word of the Christie suit leaked out -- declined to say whether a heart monitor is involved, though Fox insiders said some sort of body sensors will be used. Other industry insiders said contestants trying out for "The Chamber'' have been told a monitoring device is involved. It is likely "The Chamber'' will have a doctor on-set to ensure the safety of contestants.

Adding to the potential confusion for viewers: Sony is said to be working on a concept tentatively titled "Russian Roulette,'' a quizzer that would involve a heart monitor. The show could end up at the Game Show Network, which is in talks with Sony about the format.

As for "The Chair'' and "The Chamber,'' the projects are high priorities for their respective networks. ABC began airing teaser promos for "The Chair'' this week during its coverage of the college football bowl games. It's possible the series could premiere this month, though ABC execs are trying not to rush the series on before it's ready.

Fox aired its first promo for "The Chamber'' Thursday night, and industry insiders believe the series will almost certainly bow within the next two to three weeks. Christie's lawsuit, in fact, states the network wants to bow the show on Wednesday.

But Fox insiders said "The Chamber'' has been in the works for five months as an inhouse idea that was then brought to Dick Clark Prods. They call their show a mix of "Fear Factor,'' the Japanese reality series "Endurance'' and a traditional game show. Even if that's true, Christie believes the series has been changed since Fox execs found out about "The Chair.''

"During a series of confidential meetings, I pitched this (idea) to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- and everyone who heard it thought it was unique and fresh, especially Fox,'' she said. Fox ''pursued me aggressively, saying they 'had to have it,' in fact saying they would do anything to get it.''

Christie said she nonetheless chose to bring "The Chair'' to ABC because she had a pre-existing relationship with the network and because they would "hold truest to my creative expression.'' What's more, in her lawsuit she says she was unhappy with the way Fox had translated her format for the upcoming reality series "I Want a Wife: Alaska.''

Touchdown has sold "The Chair'' internationally to more than a dozen markets, but the chance to produce the series for a U.S. network was "a dream come true,'' Christie said. Establishing "The Chair'' as a hit here could do for Christie what the success of "Survivor'' has done for producer Mark Burnett.

"You can imagine how appalled I was to discover that Fox not only took the heart of my show -- they've gone into production on it,'' she said. "Even in this business, that crosses all boundaries. I'm simply not going to stand for it.''

Fox insiders, however, strongly believe "The Chamber'' is ''brand-new television,'' as one executive said. "It's a combining of concepts and ideas that have never been done before on a stage setting.''

This is hardly the first time networks have clashed over reality concepts. Fox and Dick Clark quickly teamed to pull together "Greed,'' a short-lived knockoff of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.'' And CBS last year sued Fox and LMNO Prods. over "Boot Camp,'' which CBS said was a rip-off of "Survivor.'' The suit was settled out of court.

Late Thursday, Fox executives were not available for comment. ABC said it doesn't comment on pending litigation.

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