CBS threatens ABC over its Big Brother-like Glass House

A lawyer for CBS sent a threatening letter to ABC’s president about ABC’s plans to air Glass House, a series that was announced earlier this week and is similar to and possibly better than Big Brother. There’s one way to read this: CBS is very, very scared that ABC is going to improve on a format they’ve squandered for years by letting it stay in a low-rent rut.

The letter (Deadline has a PDF as part of its report) calls the show “substantially — and strikingly — similar to CBS’s famous and long-running series Big Brother” and says anyone “will be acting at their own peril if they continue to proceed” with producing it. The letter claims “ABC has used nearly identical protectable elements that form the essence of Big Brother and copied them in creating Glass House, establishing a classic case of copyright infringement.”

Among its revelations are that it is produced by at least 18–18!–former Big Brother producers and crew members who, the letter says, “were privy to trade secrets and other confidential, proprietary information and signed broad and binding non-disclosure agreements.” Those people include Glass House showrunner Kenny Rosen, who worked as a co-executive producer for five years, and Mike O’Sullivan, who was a supervising producer for eight years; even ABC’s vice president of reality programming, Corie Henson, worked as a producer on the show.

Trade secrets? Like how to create the perfect ejaculating challenge? How to hide racism? How to turn a homophobe into your hero by making him seem like the victim? How to flirt with contestants? How to manipulate the game while pretending you are not?

Actually, the letter specifies what some of those “numerous confidential and proprietary approaches, techniques and methods” are:

“(1) the technical set-up of a house with multiple audio and video feeds constantly recording all participants; (2) processes entailed in editing a 24-hour feed from multiple cameras into a linear narrative; (3) design and implementation of complicated participant challenges in a small, confined space; (4) rehearsal and mock-up techniques to test all systems and challenges; and (5) processes used in viewer interactivity.”

That list is hilarious, because items 3 and 4 describe pretty much every competition show, ever, and 1, 2, and 5 are in no way unique to Big Brother. MTV and Bunim-Murray Productions were doing #1 long before CBS with The Real World. Still, CBS’ lawyer says that they are “trade secrets” and warns they will seek “damages and injunctive relief” for “misappropriation of trade secrets.”

Because those claims seem so thin, this does seem like fear masquerading as a legal threat. Previous charges of copycat shows, including claims made by CBS, have ended with settlements, as The Hollywood Reporter notes, and this might, too. Or CBS might continue to throw legal stones and see if they can break Glass House before it airs in June.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.