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Imitation doesn’t always mean flattery on TV

Ever wonder why different networks come out with very similar reality shows during the same season? Reality TV expert Andy Dehnart tells you why that happens.
/ Source: contributor

Wondering about how a certain reality show pulled something off? Have a question about a certain contestant?

Whether it's "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Apprentice," "Real World" or another show, . Andy Dehnart,'s Television Editor and creator of ,will try to answer them.

Before you send in your question, — you may be able to get your answer right away.

Q: Why is it that certain networks seem to come out with very similar reality shows in the same season? Two examples that come to mind are “Wife Swap” and “Trading Spouses” and “Don't Forget the Lyrics” and the “Singing Bee.” Are the networks stealing each others' ideas, or is this some sort of huge cosmic coincidence? Thanks!  — Erica, Milwaukee, Wis.

A: Ah, the great television mystery. As prevalent and blatant as the theft sometimes seems to be, there's no one answer as to how it comes about. Like with other forms of art and creative expression, imitation can be flattery, theft or just coincidence.

Most of the time, networks and producers just follow the leader, responding to popular shows by creating their own versions. The latest rage, besides the singing shows you identify, is to borrow from "American Idol," which has been the most popular TV show in the country for the past few years. Occasionally, networks combine successful formats and then end up with similar formats.

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Networks even occasionally copy themselves. FOX just debuted “The Next Great American Band,” which uses “American Idol's” format, as does its summer series “So You Think You Can Dance.” Bravo essentially put “Project Runway” into a copy machine and spit out “Top Chef,” “Top Design” and “Shear Genius.”

Sometimes, networks end up with the same shows scheduled to debut around the same time. While those could be coincidental, and undoubtedly sometimes are, the timing is often suspicious. For example, FOX's announcement of “Trading Spouses” came just before ABC's debut of “Wife Swap,” a U.K. reality show that ABC imported, and that prompted a lawsuit.

Similar cases of apparent format plagiarism have often landed networks in court, but the aggrieved party hasn't typically been successful keeping the other show off the air. CBS, for example, lost a legal challenge to ABC's “I'm a Celebrity — Get Me Out of Here,” which sounded like it was going to be a celebrity edition of “Survivor.” (CBS ultimately didn't have anything to worry about. ABC's show was totally crappy and boring.)

This phenomenon isn't even just limited to reality shows. This season, for example, The CW is airing “Reaper” and NBC is airing “Chuck.” Both feature average, slightly dorky guys who work in big-box retail stores who suddenly find themselves with new powers and have to go on various missions with the help of their friends. And "Chuck" was itself accused of being very similar to a former UPN series, "Jake 2.0," although "Chuck's" creator denied that the concepts were alike.

In television, it seems similarity is here to stay.

Q: Who appeared on the first season of "Survivor" and then committed suicide? — Anonymous

A: No one. The cast of the first season is alive and well, although the show's winner, Richard Hatch, is currently in prison for tax evasion.

Recently, a cast member of "Pirate Master" did commit suicide.

That CBS reality competition series was also produced by Mark Burnett, and was similar to "Survivor" in many ways. In late July, shortly after CBS canceled the series, .

You might also be thinking of a death related to the first season of "Expedition: Robinson." The 1997 Swedish TV show was the first series to use the format that later became "Survivor" in the United States. Sinisa Savija, the first person voted off its first season, killed himself a few months before the show began airing.

Q: I have been watching “Rock of Love” with Bret Michaels and am dying to know if he is actually bald under that headband thing he always wears. I realize it is his trademark, but does he really have to wear it in every scene? — Anonymous, Los Angeles

A: What exactly is under Bret Michaels' bandanna is the source of a lot of discussion and speculation by fans. Some say that Bret, who's in his mid-40s, is bald or balding, or just has thin hair. Others say there's nothing wrong with his hair, as the headband is just his trademark. In some photos, the top of his hair is visible, which some say means he's wearing a wig.

Except for Bret and those closest to him, no one really knows.

Why it matters is, if anything, evidence that reality television can make us care about real people.

Maybe you'll get to find out next season — or just get more annoyed as he continues to wear his headgear — because Bret will be returning for "Rock of Love 2" early next year.

Like Flavor Flav and New York before him, the rock star found love on a VH1 show, broke up soon after, and thus gets to return for a second season and another chance at reality TV love. Word of Bret's breakup with Jes came just days after the finale aired, and long after VH1 had started casting for season two.

Draw your own conclusions.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.