Fox's 'The Next Great Champ' faces new lawsuit alleging idea theft
By Wade Paulsen, 09/02/2004
It looks like Fox's copycat reality-competition boxing series The Next Great Champ will end up with as much battling in the courtroom as in the ring.
In Round 1, Champknocked out a request for a preliminary injunction against the show by the producers of NBC's The Contender, the show which Champ appeared to copy. Round 2 of that battle, in which The Contender seeks monetary damages from The Next Great Champ for the tort of unfair business competition, is still pending. Now, Champ has been dragged into an entirely new battle for Round 3.
On September 1, a fledgling L.A. TV producer named Leigh Ann Burton filed suit against Champ host and boxing superstar Oscar de la Hoya and his Golden Boy Promotions LLC unit, as well as Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, alleging that the idea and treatment of Champ were misappropriated from her. In her suit, filed in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, Ms. Burton seeks both actual and punitive damages from the defendants for torts including breach of implied-in-fact contract, breach of confidence and unfair competition.
According to the claims in Ms. Burton's lawsuit, she dreamed up the idea for a reality-competition show involving boxers and their significant others holed up in a training compound, with the winner of the competition receiving a major Las Vegas fight, during the summer of 2003. On September 22, 2003, she registered her treatment of the idea with the Writers Guild of America.
Burton then faxed letters to top-tier boxers, hoping to interest one of them in her concept. On October 2, 2003, she faxed a letter to Golden Boy. Such unsolicited faxes are routinely ignored in Hollywood, but, according to her suit, Burton hit the jackpot: Golden Boy CEO Schaefer called her back later that day and set up a face-to-face meeting on October 7. Although Mr. de la Hoya did not attend that meeting, he participated via telephone.
At that meeting, Burton laid out her concept of the show and provided the defendants with a copy of her registered treatment. The suit claims that the parties agreed that de la Hoya, Schaefer and Golden Boy would not make use of her idea without her consent, and then only if there was appropriate compensation for her.
Based upon Golden Boy's expression of interest, Burton was able to reach a production deal with reality television producers GRB Entertainment (The Surreal Life, The Next Action Star, Cannonball Run), and she told Schaefer and de la Hoya on November 5 that she was ready to move forward on the show, tentatively titled House of Pain. She then met with de la Hoya in person at a charity ball, at which time (according to her suit) he told her how enthusiastic he was about her concept.
However, negotiations between Burton and Golden Boy hit a snag on January 14, 2004 -- which was right about the time that DreamWorks SKG LLC head Jeffrey Katzenberg was soliciting de la Hoya to host The Contender. The next thing that Burton heard was in March 2004, when de la Hoya reached a deal with Endemol USA to host The Next Great Champ, days after NBC announced The Contender ... and she was left outside looking in, since she had no foreknowledge that de la Hoya was even contemplating a deal with Endemol.
The first question is whether The Next Great Champ is actually based upon Burton's idea. In that regard, we note that the only major difference between Champ and The Contender is that the reward for the winner on Champ is a title fight, not a monetary prize, and offering a first prize of a big fight was part of Burton's idea.
We also note that the latest story about the origins of Champ, which was related by de la Hoya at the summer Television Critics Association press tour, is consistent with her story as well. In the latest version, de la Hoya claimed to have been trying to sell his own reality show at the time he met with Katzenberg and Mark Burnett Productions regarding The Contender, but they weren't interested in his idea, so he took it to another network. If de la Hoya's idea was actually Burton's idea, then her claim for compensation seems strong.
Stephen Espinosa, an attorney for Golden Boy, told The Hollywood Reporter that he couldn't comment on the specific claims in the suit, but that "the public comments from Ms. Burton and her counsel concerning what occurred between the parties are simply not true. Golden Boy Promotions and Mr. Schaefer have done nothing wrong, and Ms. Burton's claims to the contrary are utterly without merit."
Since the specific claims in the suit are based almost exclusively upon what transpired between the parties, we wonder what sort of knowledge Mr. Espinoza had, if any, that would allow him to dismiss Burton's version of what transpired between the parties without also having enough knowldge to make a statement about the specific claims in the suit.
Finally, we note that Bruce Broillet, Burton's lead attorney from the the Santa Monica, CA law firm of Greene, Broillet, Panish & Wheeler, LLP, declined comment to Daily Variety with regard to The Contender. Thus, we have no idea where Leigh Ann Burton's registered treatment and discussions with Oscar de la Hoya and Richard Schaefer fit in a timeline that also includes The Contender, nor do we know what differences exist between House of Pain and The Contender -- but we now have two potential sources from which The Next Great Champ may have been misappropriated.
On behalf of his client, Broillet claims that even "the promotional copy that Fox TV currently uses on its website demonstrates that they are using [Burton's] idea." We can't wait to see how he proves that in court ... provided that the case isn't settled before trial, that is. As Broillet himself notes, "the [creative] talent fears being blackballed by the industry if they object" to the misappropriation of their ideas, and we have no reason to believe that Burton doesn't share the same fears, even though she has no productions to her credit.