CNN-IBN’s summer showdown with a filmmaker

MAYAZHI LAMPARD writes from New Delhi: Back when print was king and the media was innocent, freelance journalists were often wary of pitching their ideas before certain newspapers and magazines because of the reputation of their editors and journalists to pinch the ideas and pass them off as their own. (The notorious bandit Veerappan‘s first “English” interview given to Shiva Subramanian of Nakeeran is a standout example.)

But in the age of cut-throat television, the phenomenon is not only surviving but possibly thriving.

About a month ago, CNN-IBN unveiled ‘Summer Showdown‘, a reality show in which a family was to be tracked in five cities for five weeks on the civic problems confronting them. In pure journalism terms, it was very old wine in a new bottle, with the magic buzzwords “citizen journalism” thrown in somewhere along the way.

Except that CNN-IBN’s script went awry when Urmi Juvekar Chiang, an independent documentary film maker, sought a stay on the telecast of the show for copyright infringement. She claimed that it was her idea which she had broached with the channel heads, which the channel had taken and spun into ‘Summer Showdown’.

Problem No. 2: all newspapers except one (DNA in Bombay) refused to cover the story in what one aggrieved film maker calls the perils of censorship caused by cross-media monopoly: “All the newspapers and news magazines either have channels of their own or have “strategic partnership” agreements with particular channels which stop them from exposing one another.”

Below is the full text of an email doing the rounds which chronicles the trajectory of conversation between Urmi Juvekar and CNN-IBN, and how the Bombay High Court stepped in.

***

On 9 November 2005, documentary film maker and scriptwriter Urmi Juvekar Chiang registered a concept for a reality television show called “Work in Progress” with the Film Writers’ Association.

The concept was simple: three citizens or citizens’ groups at three locations across the country would take up a troublesome civic issue and try to solve it on a campaign footing within a month. Reporters and cameras from a channel follow the story as it unfolded. Every night on the news bulletins of the channel a 3-minute capsule would keep viewers updated on the developments at each location.

At the end of the first three weeks viewers were to see a 60-minute episode of the week’s developments with a forward look to the upcoming week. A concluding 60-minute finale would come at the end of the month.

This was a project that would draw public attention to all the good work of activists under the Right to Information Act. A tremendous idea for civic education and involvement, the immediate daily TV coverage during the course of the campaign would have had implications for the progress of the cases followed. Such an idea for a reality-based programme could only have been realised with the resources which a TV news channel, with its network of people all over the country, can provide.

Here is how the story unfolded:

10 March 2006: Urmi wrote to Rasika Tyagi from CNN-IBN after a telephonic conversation and e-mailed her the concept note.

21 March 2006: Rasika Tyagi wrote back saying that she found the concept note interesting and asked for a meeting.

3 April 2006: a meeting is held in the CNN-IBN office in Delhi. A detailed concept note with treatment, sample characters and episode development is presented along with the budget and production plan. The budget is deemed to be high and CNN-IBN offers some in-house facilities to bring costs down. They also suggest an option of doing it in two languages so that it can be broadcast on IBN 7 simultaneously.

Several more discussions are held in subsequent months and finally Urmi is informed that the project will be considered after World Cup 2007.

14 May 2007: CNN-IBN puts on a new show ‘Summer Showdown’. It is a daily 3-minute capsule, but has no the-end-of-the-week review. Their website ibnlive.com advertises it as a reality show showcasing five families across five metros solving their civic problems in four weeks.

19 May 2007: Urmi is informed by friends that a show that looks very similar to her ‘Work in Progress’ is on air and she manages to see the show.

21 May 2007: Urmi rushes to the Bombay High Court. The case is scheduled for May 23 in front of the vacation judge. She claims infringement of copyright and breach of confidentiality.

23 May 2007: counsel for CNN-IBN makes a statement in court that ‘Summer Showdown’ is not a reality show but a live news clipping. The court asks them to give an affidavit stating the same.

24 May 2007: CNN-IBN asks the judge to change the order. Now they admit that ‘Summer Showdown’ is a reality-based programme but insist that it is not based on `Work in Progress’. They claim that their previous day’s statement in the court was misunderstood. Their appeal is rejected and they are asked to file an affidavit on the May 31 stating that ‘Summer Showdown’ is a live news clipping and not based on Urmi’s project.

29 May 2007: CNN-IBN files an affidavit only stating that they have not copied Urmi’s idea. They also state that ideas are not protected by copyright. The affidavit is filled with contradictory statements. ‘Summer Showdown’ now becomes a race between various civic authorities in completing summer-related problems in four weeks. Traffic, monsoon and garbage are portrayed as summer problems. In a play of semantics, the civic problems dealt in ‘Summer Showdown’ become macro level while the problems suggested for ‘Work in Progress’ problems are stated to be local and at micro level.

At the same time the CNN-IBN website continues to feature ‘Summer Showdown’ as a tale of five families across the country trying to solve civic problems.

Urmi’s sample episodes demonstrating the concept are dismissed as fiction scripts. According to CNN-IBN, her 25 -page project proposal is a mere idea. Well known anchor Rajdeep Sardesai denies knowledge of the matter while his e-mail replies to Urmi state otherwise.

4 June 2007: Urmi sends a rejoinder, exposing the contradictions in the affidavit, and pointing to the fact that although in the court ‘Summer Showdown’ was described as a live news clipping, it has now become a reality show created in-house during March and April 2007.

6 May 2007: the case comes for hearing in Bombay High Court. The counsel for CNN IBN pleads for more time since he has not been able to prepare adequately. Urmi’s counsel opposes the move as only 4 days remain for the first round of 4 weeks of the telecast. The judge agrees to listen to the case on merit.

The case is heard for four hours. Urmi’s counsel puts all facts regarding meetings and submissions on the table and deals with similarities at great length. The counsel for CNN IBN sticks to the single point that ideas are not protected by copyright and Urmi’s idea is just a rehash of ‘Rajni‘, the popular programme of the 1980s, and several present-day citizen journalism programmes on TV.

Urmi’s counsel refutes these arguments, concluding his statement by saying that if she does not get a stay order in this matter, then no creative person who approaches a TV channel in order to realise his or her idea will feel safe and protected by the law. The judgment is scheduled for the next day.

7 June 2007: the judge dictates the judgment in his chamber for three hours. He comes to the court and grants the stay order to Urmi Juvekar on the basis of copyright claims and breach of confidentiality. CNN IBN demands a relief of four days. The judge reminds them that their programme cycle gets over on Saturday 9 June in any case, so relief till Monday, June 11, seems pointless.

8 June 2007: CNN IBN rushes into appeal but the division bench asks for a copy of the judgment. That still being in preparation, they have to stop there. On Monday 11th June, CNN IBN is expected make an appeal to the bench and we will see how the story spins on.

In the meanwhile, considering the landmark nature of the judgement and the significance of it for independent film makers, script-writers and the Film Writers’ Association, there is not much news of it about.

The simple reason: media refuses to touch the story. In that lies another story, something of a warning to those who have to survive in India Inc.

2 Comments

  1. Abhi 2.0

    I think the final line ie the conclusion is a bit warped. What does this have to do with India Inc.?? Its an old fact that media whether corporatized or not always reports on itself very gingerly. This was the case well before liberalization of media and will continue to be the case across the world. Even today, will an allegedly socially responsible outfit like the Hindu report aggressively on its family politics? Likewise with Indian Express’ split some time ago?

    Even in the US where the WSJ jas reported far more aggfressively on its own future than any Indian media outlet could ever hope to do, the readers still snigger at the light treatment Dow Jones is getting.. See Link:
    http://www.thestreet.com/_digg/newsanalysis/investing/10362372.html

  2. Vishal

    Also this whole bullshit leftist theory of some vast conspiracy in media to keep stories about them out is cockamamie! Having worked in media I can assure that they would love to have that power but actually don’t.

    In any case on one hand they’re accussed of dumbing down news with cut-throat competition but then cosying together as in this case. That doesnt make sense. Times Now is in fierce competition with CNN-IBN .. what stops ToI from covering the story? Arnab Goswami would love it. But THAT would precisely be unethical since they would be doing it just to take a jab at rivals and not on editorial merit. That possibly why DNA covered this – they’re part owned by Dainik Bhaskar whos rivals Dainik Jagran part own IBN-7

    If it were only on editorial merit this is such a non-story. Everyday a dozen scriptwriters and lyricists in Bollywood, TV and docu accuse each other of plagiarism. This is just another case. If anything, the story will only get covered because CNN-IBN and Rajdeep are high profile media entities.

    Urmi has every right to feel wronged and approach the courts. Does her case deserve coverage? Hardly ! Its just another dispute to be settled in courts… CNN-IBN and other media outlets are fighting a number of them at any given time

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