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Reality shows leave viewers seeing double

Two's a crowd when it comes to new reality shows, which seem to all come in pairs.

The old saying claims that two is company, but when it comes to the fall's new reality shows, two's already a crowd. Almost every new reality show has a twin — apparently there really are only a few new ideas in Hollywood each year, and they hop around from studio to studio.

"The Benefactor" and "The Billionaire" both feature billionaires putting 16 contestants through various challenges in hopes of a big prize.

"Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses," the latter of which has been on the air for months now, both take two families and swap their personnel around, hoping for engaging fish-out-of-water scenarios.

And "The Contender" and "The Next Great Champ" take the reality concept to the boxing ring, showcasing a cadre of young fighters and thinning their ranks each week.

One new reality show doesn't have a twin, but that doesn't mean it's not derivative. "The Complex: Malibu" takes its competitive format from reality shows and its fixing-up-the-house format from remodeling and redecorating shows such as "Trading Spaces" and "Extreme Home Makeover."

Of course, returning reality shows include some of the genre's biggest names: "Survivor," "The Amazing Race," "The Apprentice," "The Bachelor," and, in January, "American Idol." (We've rounded up details of some of the top returning shows.) Will the newcomers give the old standbys a run for their reality dollar? It remains to be seen whether any of the twins will be the real deal.

"The Benefactor"Donald Trump's reality show "The Apprentice" was such a hit for NBC that two other networks have copied the format — ABC with Mark Cuban and "The Benefactor" and FOX with Richard Branson and "The Billionaire." But can viewers keep the similarly named shows straight, and can either of the copycats trump Trump?

"The Benefactor" is out of the gates first, with a Sept. 13 premiere (8 p.m. ET, ABC). If you've seen any reality show, you're familiar with the setup: Thousands audition, Cuban picks 16, they live together and perform various tasks, hoping to avoid elimination, be the last man or woman standing, and take home the million-dollar prize.

Although Cuban has similarly goofy hair, the self-made billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team is just not as well known as Trump. Thousands who've heard of The Donald are going to draw a blank when asked who he is. Cuban seems pretty enthused about his show, though, hand-picking the contestants himself and spying on them all from a hidden control room. But part of Trump's appeal was that he kept himself a little removed from the show, making his Boardroom appearances all the more powerful.

Early indications are that Cuban will have to develop a bit more personality, as will the show. His reasoning for kicking people off seems somewhat random, and one competition was reminiscent of "The Brady Bunch" episode where the boys take on the girls in a playing-card house building contest ("Marcia! Your bracelet!") Not to mention that Cuban's "You've just lost your shot at a million dollars" is no "Yer fired!"

"The Billionaire"

THE BILLIONAIRE: BRANSON'S QUEST FOR THE BEST: Richard Branson. *)2004 FOX BROADCASTING COMPANY. Cr: Walter Iooss/FOX.Walter Iooss

Hey, how about that? "The Billionaire" comes alphabetically right after "The Benefactor" in the list of fall shows. (But "The Apprentice" is still ahead of them both — ah, alphabet, you and your irony!)

"The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best" (premiering Nov. 9, 8 p.m. ET, on FOX) is Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group of Companies. A description of the show (tapes weren't available for preview), says he "will lead a group of young entrepreneurs on an epic journey around the world ... they will jet to international destinations and relive some of [Branson's] personal experiences, tackling the types of dilemmas that help shape future billionaires ... if they make decisions that impress Branson, they will continue onward."

Since Branson is the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, the world journey bit makes sense, and the Emmy-winning "Amazing Race" has shown that a reality show with a global setting can open things up and create interest in a way that house-bound shows such as "Big Brother" just can't manage. Much depends on just how well-thought-out the competition part of the show is, and how engaging Branson is as a host. Until that is determined, neither Branson nor Cuban should quit their day jobs.

"The Complex: Malibu"
A note of advice to producers of future reality shows: Not everything can be a reality show. Just because, say, you are working on remodeling your home, doesn't mean you should turn remodeling into a reality show. Although if there's ever been a show aimed at getting free work out of its contestants, this is that show.

In "The Complex: Malibu" (premiered Aug. 30, 8 p.m. ET on FOX) — the title implying, perhaps, that there will be a sequel: "The Complex: Toledo"? — eight couples attempt to renovate a crumbling apartment complex with a gorgeous ocean view.  Each week, a panel of judges determines whose renovations have added the least amount of value, and one couple is eliminated. If this sounds like a thrill-a-minute to you, you've obviously never seen a five-minute fight over the importance of crown molding.

It's true, people do get snappish and bratty while attempting to remodel a home, but the reason shows like "Trading Spaces" are fun to watch is that they're really more about the descorating— hay on the walls! — than they are the actual building. By focusing on the underpinnings of the rooms, the parts that never get seen, "The Complex" has focused on the dull part of remodeling.

"The Contender" and "The Next Great Champ""Don't be fooled by imitators!" barks NBC's Web page for "The Contender" (no preview tape available, premieres midseason). It's obvious the Peacock Network isn't too thrilled to have competition. After losing the battle for this Mark Burnett concept, FOX went out and commissioned their own boxing reality show, "The Next Great Champ" (also no preview tape available, premieres Sept. 7, 9 p.m. ET)

"Contender" and "Next Great Champ" on FOX both involve young boxers struggling to make it. It's "America's Next Model" with punching bags instead of pashminas, or "Last Comic Standing" with jabs replacing jokes. Not the most original concept, obviously, but also not the world's worst idea.

"Contender" has more marquee names. In addition to Burnett as producer, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and actor-who-played-a-boxer Sylvester Stallone have signed on to mentor the young fighters, who are fighting for a million-dollar prize. "Next Great Champ" has eight-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya, but according to the , the prize is "a professional contract with De La Hoya's Golden Boy Productions and a possible shot at a titleholder." That's all well and good, but it's no million bucks.

Whether or not one of the two boxing shows scores a TKO, we're hoping the networks don't just keep cranking out competitive reality shows, changing only the career. Because we're not quite ready for "America's Next Great Realtor" or "Last Supermarket Checker Standing."

"Wife Swap"There was a lot of fuss over the fact that new ABC reality show "Wife Swap" (premieres Sept. 29, 10 p.m. ET) has the same plot as Fox's "Trading Spouses." In both, two women switch families and everyone tries to adjust. The issue shouldn't have been which network came up with the idea first, it should have been why did either of them come up with it at all? Show me one viewer left who isn't sick of fish-out-of-water, rich-meets-poor and I'll show you a viewer who hasn't been near a television in about three years.

In "Wife Swap," the new wife has to follow her new family's rules for a week (each departing wife makes up a household-rule manual the other must go by). Then they switch, and the new woman gets to run the household her way. ABC doesn't choose families with subtle differences, of course, choosing instead a New York millionairess with more nannies than children to swap lives with a schoolbus driver who chops wood for six hours each day. The rich woman has never worked a day in her life, eats out six nights a week, and spends maybe an hour a day with her children.

Whose side do you think viewers are expected to take? This concept got old shortly after "Green Acres" and should have met its death with the first season of "The Simple Life." If you don't hate all rich people by the end of just one episode, move your head a little, ABC's anvil may have missed you by inches.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor