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Vanessa LeFort

Reality T.V. Formats

           While Reality T.V. has enjoyed tremendous success in the last five years, the formats on which these largely unscripted shows are based have, despite their apparent economic value, not been successfully protected under copyright law. The legal quandaries surrounding Reality T.V. formats, when more closely examined, relate in part to the philosophical differences between Plato and Aristotle’s concepts of form, and correspondingly, reality as well. It is the aim of this thesis to use the current legal debates surrounding Reality T.V. formats as a springboard to partially uncover the ideological positions regarding reality which are at stake in these kinds of shows, while simultaneously analyzing why copyright laws are largely unable to meaningfully establish formats as works of creative expression.

         That there is an intriguing interplay between form and reality is overtly present in the terms used to identify this latest genre of television programming: Reality T.V. format. Simply omitting the middle term, one is left with: Reality format. Buried here are conflated references to Platonic forms as real and separate from their partial instantiation in the worldly, and to Aristotelian form as that which is not necessarily extricable from the substances it shapes, and which is thus of this world.

          Interestingly, most copyright laws are themselves based on concepts of authorial production that are not impartial to the distinctions among shape, shaping, and what is shaped. The thesis questions whether ideas can be separated from their creative expression, a question that is a cornerstone of modern American copyright law. Ideas cannot be protected under copyright law, but an original expression of ideas can be. Ideas have the quality of being universal in such a way that they cannot be particularized. Hence, so the argument runs, no one can claim a property right in ideas.

           Reality T.V. formats deeply frustrate the idea-expression dichotomy.  For one, they are partly unscripted, which means the exact content is not specified, even if the type of content can be prescribed.  In this context, one can think of individual episodes of a show as instances of the format, and one can also begin to see why formats travel so well when exported to different cultures. It is the insertion of the format within a given culture which gives it specificity while it remains general enough to be universal. From a legal perspective, formats are often treated as combinations of very basic ideas or elements, which when combined in a specific manner, may or may not amount to creative expression.


           After SAIC, Vanessa LeFort will enter law school and enrich her engagement with the law through her theoretical and critical examination of visual culture.


Thesis Advisor: Michael Newman, Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Thesis Reader: Michael Dorf, Adjunct Professor, Arts Administration; Partner, Adducci, Dorf, Lehner, Mitchell & Blankenship, P.C.

Second Reader: Terri Kapsalis,Adjunct Associate Professor; Visual and Critical Studies; Performance; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Liberal Arts



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