Imitation is the sincerest form of Television. – Fred Allen
CBS went to court to try to prevent ABC from airing their new series The Glass House. They claimed that the show was a blatant copy of their network’s summer series Big Brother to the point where it constituted copyright infringement and “misappropriation of trade secrets.” I can’t speak to the question of “misappropriation of trade secrets,” but base on what I saw on Monday night I would suggest that it comes awfully close to copyright infringement if it doesn’t cross the line.
The Glass House features fourteen players of various ages, occupations, sexual orientations and attitudes towards the game and how it should be played. On one hand there’s Apollo, a poet, who proposes to make no alliances but rather to decide who he’s going to vote for based on having people pick cards. On the opposite side is the exceptionally obnoxious Alex – or as he calls himself at least twice in the first episode “primetime 99 Alex Stein” – who asks America if he should become “the most epic villain in the history of reality TV” but who seems to be getting a good start on that project even before America tells him “Yes!”
Audience participation is a big part of this show, far bigger than on most seasons of the American version of Big Brother after the first season. The home audience votes or has input on virtually every aspect of the game. In the first episode the audience (entirely made up of people who watched the show’s live feeds online since the episode was recorded) voted on which “guests” would occupy some of the rooms for the week – they put the oldest and youngest women in the “Enemies” room. The viewers decided on what sort of party the “guests” would have (Pool Party beat Pajama Party), the kind of drinks they’d have, and the party favours they’d receive (feather boas and Mardi Gras beads). The home audience even decided on the party game the people inside would play.
The audience also decided how the players would be split into teams for the competition which was the main feature of the week. Given a choice between “Men vs. Women,” “Older vs. Younger,” and “East vs. West,” the viewers chose “East vs. West.” One of the players, Jacob who lives in Oregon, didn’t know whether he lived in the East or the West. The only choices left to the players was who would be their team captains for the competition. Being a team captain puts the person selected (or volunteering) in considerable danger. Two members of the losing team are placed in “Limbo” – sequestered from the other players in the game but not out of the game. One of the players sent to limbo will be the losing team captain, while the other will be a member of the losing team voted for by all of the players, both from the winning and the losing team. Jacob, the guy from Oregon who doesn’t know that he’s from the West volunteers to lead the Western team, while the Eastern team is led by Jeffrey, a self-proclaimed fat Gay guy working as a receptionist in Brooklyn, who also volunteered to be team captain.
The first competition is a relatively simple puzzle. Names of members of the opposing team were on the left side of a board, and some attribute or activity that they participate in was on the right side. Separating the two sides was a four-by-four grid of squares. The squares were in fact the faces of a three sided object (there couldn’t be more than three sides or they wouldn’t have turned properly in the space allotted to them. Four team members were placed on lifts controlled from a panel behind them. Two of the remaining players operated the lifts following the instructions of the team captain. Once the competition started the players would flip the squares revealing coloured lines. The lines connected the names to the attributes. The clock would stop when when the correct people were connected by a coloured line to the correct attribute.
As I’ve said this is a relatively simple puzzle if you ignore the attributes and concentrate on getting the lines within the grid of squares to connect to each other. The West team were the first to tackle the puzzle and did exactly what they shouldn’t have done. They tried to guess which person had which attribute and tried to find lines which connect the person to the attribute that they expected them to have. It took them over seven and a half minutes to complete the puzzle correctly. The East team took the correct approach, turning the outer sets of squares – the ones by the names and the attributes – and then finding the correct paths in the middle group of squares. It took them just over three and a half minutes. The West team lost and Jacob was automatically placed in Limbo.
What remained was for the players to select the other player to go into Limbo. Throughout the time that they had been in the Glass House, Alex had been making himself the most hated person in the house. He strutted around the house in his underwear, pretending to hump Andrea, a married Mormon woman with three kids, denigrated Joy – a nurse who has also appeared in Playboy several times – as a stripper and sex worker whose opinion doesn’t matter because of that, and attacked cocktail waitress Erica for being fat. It was all part of his effort to be “the most epic villain in the history of reality TV,” but the other great reality TV villains such as Dr. Will and Evel Dick on Big Brother and Russel Hantz on Survivor had a greater plan behind their “villainy” (and in the cases of Will and Dick, it was a successful plan in that they won their seasons of Big Brother). Alex’s “plan” was to be “evil” (or rather hateful and obnoxious) for no other reason than to be evil and obnoxious. It certainly won him few friends and allies in the house. While Apollo stuck with his “plan” to vote for the person who picked a specific card, and another vote went a different way, pretty much everyone voted to send Alex to Limbo. And while Jacob quit the show shortly after he went into Limbo that doesn’t mean that Alex is safe; it is left up to the viewers to decide if Alex will be going back into the Glass House.
So is The Glasshouse guilty of copyright infringement and “misappropriation of trade secrets?” Well I can’t speak to the latter – reportedly the “misappropriation of trade secrets” included someone from ABC “acquiring” the CBS policy handbook for the show – but speaking as someone who isn’t a lawyer (and doesn’t play one on TV) and who isn’t certain as to what constitutes copyright infringement legally, I have to say that it certainly feels close enough to what Big Brother is like – and of almost equal importance what the international versions of Big Brother produced by Endemol are like – for it to be almost the same show. The basis of both shows is a “houseful of people living their lives under a ‘microscope’ with no privacy”, constantly under video and audio observation (and they know it). There are differences from the American version of Big Brother: there is no “Head Of Household” and the nomination ceremony is significantly different from the current American version of the show – they use a video screen and what appears to be a variation on the XBox 360’s Kinect movement system for selection of one of the people to go into Limbo – and of course the evicted “guests” are decided by the votes of the audience rather than the fellow competitors. Then there’s the idea that the actions of the players are controlled by the audience. The problem for me is that virtually everything that sets the show apart from Big Brother is stuff that the American version of the show has done in the past, mostly in a limited manner, and/or is stuff that is commonly done in the international versions of Big Brother. The CBS show has had contestants “remotely controlled” by the audience in that past; in one case they had an “America’s Player” was controlled by the audience right up until the moment he was evicted. Big Brother routinely has audience votes on punishment foods and a variety of other conditions within the house. And while they no longer do it, in the first season of Big Brother the houseguests nominated people for eviction but it was the audience that decided by their votes who would be evicted. It didn’t work in the first American season which is why the format of the show was changed to make the evictions more Survivor-like. It is however very similar to the way that every other entry in the international Big Brother franchise operates. On the face of it I’d say that CBS has a strong case that the similarities between The Glasshouse and Big Brother are close enough to constitute copyright infringement.
For me the big question is whether The Glasshouse is good TV and as far as I’m concerned the answer is that it is pretty awful TV. The show comes across as almost an afterthought; while most shows, including Big Brother, have online components as an adjunct, The Glasshouse feels as though the TV show is less important than the online component. The show’s live feeds from within the house are the primary content while the TV show is merely a summary of what people saw there over the week. The one thing that ABC didn’t steal from Big Brother was multiple episodes each week (three episodes in most weeks for Big Brother including one live episode). For a show like this multiple episodes are necessary for those of us who don’t watch the live feeds obsessively (in other words those of us who have lives) multiple episodes in a week help viewers to develop a connection or empathy – or hatred – for the people on the show. It also helps to enhance the flow of the show allowing storylines to be picked out an developed. After one episode of The Glasshouse I really don’t feel any connection to people on the show. My “hatred” for Alex is based entirely on his over-the-top “villainous” behaviour (or if you prefer his general “douchebaggery”), not because I’ve seen his behaviour develop over any period of time. ABC seems to care less about their TV audience than their online audience (one sign: the contestant bios list how many Facebook Friends each player has). If you watch the show’s online components on a regular basis maybe you develop this sort of flow but from a TV point of view it that contributes nothing. The sense of dramatic flow that even shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race are able to develop in an episode was totally missing from the first episode of The Glasshouse. The web content isn’t being seen by most of the people who are the potential audience for the TV show. And since I happen to be writing about the TV show (and okay I admit it, because I had such a hard time trying to use the online content – maybe because I’m Canadian) my assessment is that The Glasshouse is pretty abominable TV.