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History and Sci Fi channels to debut dueling 'UFO Hunters' on Feb 6.


By Christopher Rocchio and Steve Rogers, 01/25/2008 

The History Channel and Sci Fi Channel are apparently taking the reality show concept wars to a new level. 

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In what appears to be an unprecedented scenario, both networks are currently planning to premiere different reality programs with the same name and the same subject matter on the same night in the same time period.

The History Channel's UFO Hunters will follow a team from UFO Magazine as they investigate UFO cases in North America and Europe while Sci Fi Channel's UFO Hunters will follow a team from the New York Strange Phenomena Investigators organization investigating their own set of UFO cases.  Both shows are currently scheduled to premiere Wednesday, February 6 at 10PM ET/PT.

F. Jay Dougherty, a professor of law at Loyola Law School Los Angeles who spoke with Reality TV World on Friday, said television program titles aren't copyrightable but can obtain trademark protection -- a move that, rather than just selecting an alternative name, both shows are attempting.

"Normally, the competitive process would have weeded it out," said Dougherty.  "You tend to work these things out through changing names, or changing release dates.  Normally they kind of work out in the process of relationships in the commercial world.  I'm a little surprised that they're butting heads like this."

The History Channel, which is billing its program as a "a spinoff from the network's hit program 'UFO Hunters' which premiered in 2005," filed a United States Patent and Trademark Office application to trademark the use of the term "UFO Hunters" in "entertainment services, including an on-going television series featuring stories about the paranormal, aliens, and unusual phenomena" as well as "pre-recorded audio and video tapes and discs" on October 31, 2007. 

The application, formally filed by A&E Television Networks, The History Channel's corporate parent, was filed under the "use in commerce" basis -- a status used in cases in which the filer is claiming to have already used the term they are attempting to trademark.

The History Channel's UFO Hunters series is being produced by Motion Picture Production, Inc., the same production company that produced UFO Files, an anthology documentary television series that premiered on the network in 2004. 

In July 2005, The History Channel premiered a UFO Files episode entitled "UFO Hunters."  The DVD edition of the one-hour episode, listed as "UFO Files: UFO Hunters DVD," is currently available for purchase on A&E's website.  Schedule information available on The History Channel's website also lists an upcoming February 2 rebroadcast of the program as UFO Files: UFO Hunters and shows "UFO Files" as the show's title and "UFO Hunters" as the episode's title.

Sci Fi Channel, which originally announced it had ordered a new UFO Hunters reality series produced by the producers of its popular Ghost Hunters reality series last July, filed its trademark application less than a week after The History Channel's filing. 

The application, filed on November 5, 2007 by Pilgrim Films and Television, the production company behind both Ghost Hunters and UFO Hunters, attempts to trademark the use of the term "UFO Hunters" with regard to "entertainment services in the nature of an on-going reality-based television program," as well as  in websites and fan clubs.  Since it isn't claiming any prior use of the term, Pilgrim's "UFO Hunters" request was filed under the "intent to use" basis.

So far, neither trademark application has been assigned an examiner or advanced beyond the initial filing stage -- an unsurprising development given the approval process can take several years.

At first glance, its earlier filing status and (albeit potentially questionable) history of previous use might appear to give The History Channel a stronger case, but that doesn't necessarily mean the network's claim will eventually be granted. 

According to Dougherty,  it could be difficult for either The History Channel or Sci Fi Channel to obtain trademark rights since the UFO Hunters title is a "fairly weak" trademark due to it's "descriptive" title.

"UFO Hunters is a more imaginative title for a work," said Dougherty.  "In other words, it's kind of descriptive what the show's about.  I think courts are a little bit reluctant to make it difficult to use words in a descriptive way.  When you use words that are descriptive, it makes it harder for you to get exclusive trademark rights in those words."

Nor is the fact that The History Channel is already displaying a "TM" mark alongside its UFO Hunters title an indication of any already-granted rights.

"Anybody can put a 'TM' next to anything that they intend to trademark," Dougherty explained.  "[It just indicates] that you are intending to use the title as a trademark."

When contacted by Reality TV World earlier this week, both networks acknowledged being aware of the other network's program but stated they were not aware of any plans to change their own program's title.  However according to a Sci Fi Channel spokesperson reached Friday, the network has not currently scheduled any additional UFO Hunters broadcasts beyond the February 6 broadcast of the show's pilot episode.

Somewhat ironically, both the Sci Fi Channel and The History Channel share some common corporate ownership.  Sci Fi Channel is owned by NBC Universal while A&E Television Networks is a joint venture between The Hearst Corporation, ABC Inc., and NBC Universal.

While UFO Hunters doesn't represent the first time networks have dueled with similar reality show concepts, it is certainly the most extreme case.

Last May, NBC announced it planned to air The Singing Bee -- a new reality competition series that would see how well contestants could accurately sing lyrics to popular songs in a karaoke-style showdown -- as part of its 2007-2008 primetime programming schedule.

However that changed in June when Fox suddenly announced it would premiere Don't Forget the Lyrics!, a similar new Bee-like game show that would also feature contestants trying to win big bucks by correctly completing the verses of different songs, in July.  The Singing Bee ultimately premiered July 10 on NBC, and Don't Forget the Lyrics! made its debut on Fox the following night.

That wasn't the first time NBC and Fox raced to premiere shows with similar formats.

In July 2004, NBC announced plans to move the debut of The Contender, a new Mark Burnett-created reality boxing show the network had ordered earlier that year, from midseason to November -- the exact same month that Fox was planning to debut The Next Great Champ, a The Contender knockoff that Fox had ordered after losing a bidding war for Burnett's series.  Fox countered NBC's move by moving its Champ knockoff even further up to a September 2004 debut and since The Contender couldn't be ready in time for a September premiere, The Next Great Champ ended up beating it to the airwaves.

Additional examples include Fox's Trading Spouses and ABC's Wife Swap as well as Fox's Nanny 911 and ABC's Supernanny.

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