FOX's ongoing reality show theft controversy roared to new levels during last week's Television Critics Association summer press tour, with both NBC and ABC chiefs lobbing fresh allegations of creative theft at the Rupert Murdoch-owned network and FOX charging back by calling the accusations "baseless" and "unacceptable." Meanwhile, during its own weekend conferences, a gleeful CBS chief admitted to enjoying just sitting on the sidelines and watching the ruckus.

The current allegations of creative theft against Fox trace back to a skirmish that began with reality uber-producer Mark Burnett, when soon after his The Apprentice hit series debuted on NBC, Fox announced plans for its own billionaire-led reality series starring UK entrepreneur Richard Branson. Burnett, who was already working with Fox for his then-upcoming The Casino series, appeared to take the news largely in stride and made no public criticism of the Fox announcement.

The situation changed quickly however, when only a few weeks after the April announcement of the Branson deal and a less than two months after losing out to NBC on the bidding for the rights to Burnett's new The Contender reality boxing series, Fox announced plans for its own The Next Great Champ boxing series -- and an intention to premiere it three months before Contender's then-intended January 2005 debut.

Both Burnett and his production partner Jeffrey Katzenberg were quick to chastise the network's announcement, with Burnett stating "Fox lost out fair and square, and it's hard to believe they'd do something substantially similar. If we feel they've stepped over the line, it's creatively outrageous... we take legal action." Oscar de la Hoya, host and co-producer of The Next Great Champ who Burnett had previously approached to appear on his series, fired back at Burnett, denigrating The Contender and saying that it was a "(glorified) tough-man contest."

Particularly upsetting to both The Contender's producers and NBC was Fox's intention that by debuting The Next Great Champ before The Contender, audiences would assume that Contender was the knockoff series and Champ was the original concept, or, failing that, at least damage Contender's own ratings chances.

The controversy died down for a couple of months until Burnett announced his next planned reality series, a worldwide search for a new lead singer for Australian band INXS. Tentatively titled Rock Star, speculation quickly began circulating that Burnett had created the American Idol-inspired series as revenge for what he saw as the theft of his Contender intellectual property. Fox however wasted no time firing back, quickly announcing its own plans for a lead singer search for TLC, the all-girl soul/rap group formerly led by Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, who died in a 2002 car crash.

Then, only days later, Fox also announced plans for Trading Spouses, a series with the same premise as ABC's fall-premiering (and critically-lauded) Wife Swap -- and an intention to premiere Trading Spouses well before the ABC series.

With all the back story leading up to last week's Television Critics Association summer press tour, the fireworks immediately began flying, with NBC chief Jeff Zucker taking Fox to task for its "bad practices" during his opening day presentation. "Quite frankly, they used to be innovators and now they're imitators," Zucker told the assembled press. "I think that it's not right what they're doing and I think frankly that they should be called on it."

Additionally Zucker announced that NBC's The Contender would now have a new premiere date, November 2003, which would put it in line with Fox's previously announced Next Great Champ debut (however, in a curious move, Fox failed to reveal a Champ premiere date in the fall schedule that it debuted late last week.)

ABC followed NBC's lead a couple of days later, with ABC Primetime President Stephen McPherson saying that producers should be wary of pitching ideas to Fox. "They will steal it, plain and simple," he told the audience. McPherson also called Fox's revelation of its intention to beat ABC's Wife Swap to the airwaves "upsetting" but stated that his network had no plans to change the premiere date of its own series -- although ABC did begin running network promos featuring a voiceover that sought to poke a jab at the Fox series.

Fox finally responded to its critics at its own presentation on Thursday, with Gail Berman, the network's president of entertainment, claiming what some may term the "everyone does it" defense and stating that her network was not doing anything unusual. "Just like scripted programming, the unscripted world has reached a point where multiple projects with similar themes are being pitched simultaneously," Berman said. "There is no need to defend ourselves. The baseless allegations of theft and extortion are outrageous and unacceptable."

Responding to Burnett's Contender claims, Berman said, "I think it's important that you know there were five other boxing shows pitched around town after they pitched their show." "This is the way television works. There's nothing new about this. This is a competitive business."

As for the criticism of its Trading Spouses series, which the network announced will be premiering tomorrow, July 20, Berman explained that since ABC's Wife Swap had already been in development for more than a year and had been reported as being scheduled for Summer 2004, Fox simply expected that the ABC series would have already long-since hit the airwaves.

Capping off the week-long tour, on Saturday CBS president Les Moonves -- who's recently faced his share of controversy on topics ranging from the Janet Jackson Superbowl incident to the network's handling of The Reagans movie to his UPN network's upcoming Amish In The City series -- confessed to just sitting back and enjoying the show.

"You know what's great? There's a controversy that CBS is not in the middle of," said Moonves. "We've been taking out our popcorn and enjoying the fight going on, going back and forth. I hope they all kill each other," he joked to the group of weary television reporters.

Commenting on NBC's previously announced plans to air The Contender directly against Fox's American Idol titan (similar to the strategy NBC employed last season in positioning Burnett's The Apprentice versus CBS's top-ranked CSI series), Moonves mused that "maybe Fox picked up the boxing show truly to hurt the NBC boxing show because they didn't want it to hurt American Idol.

In perhaps the understatement of the year, Moonves also added that, "this is a very tough, competitive game out there." "The Marquis of Queensbury rules went out the window a long time ago."