Cold Squad on Bruckheimer Case

Vancouver: The Canadian producers of Cold Squad and U.S. producers of Cold Case, a new CBS series with striking similarities to Canada’s longest-running drama, have begun preliminary communications into the thorny issue of copyright.

Vancouver-based Cold Squad producers Matt MacLeod and Julia Keatley have hired Los Angeles attorney Carole Handler of the law firm O’Donnell and Schaeffer to broker talks with Cold Case producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Bros.

No formal legal complaint has been filed, but the two groups are trading information. ‘We are deeply concerned [about the shows' similarities],’ says MacLeod, declining to discuss the details. ‘We’re taking the appropriate actions.’

On both Cold Squad and Cold Case, a female detective solves long-closed crime files. Not only are the premises and titles of the shows similar, but also Cold Case lead actor Kathryn Morris bears a remarkable resemblance to Cold Squad star Julie Stewart and their characterizations as Lilly and Ali, respectively, are arguably alike.

CBS just picked up Cold Case for a full first season, while CTV, which also airs Cold Case, has yet to set an airdate for the seventh season of Cold Squad, which wrapped its thirteenth and final episode last week.

According to Handler, the situation is preliminary and no specific action has been decided upon. ‘We are exploring our options,’ she says, confirming that written correspondence is happening between the producers. ‘We hope to work out the producers’ concerns. This is a real issue. My clients are the creators of the original concept.’

Options include everything from doing nothing to a settlement involving royalties or a format payment to a lawsuit. In copyright law, however, similar concepts are not enough to prove whether copyright has been infringed upon. Rather it is the expression of the ideas that must be similar – for instance, similar structures, characters, plot and dialogue, relationships and other issues that go beyond the basic concept.

With seven seasons of episodes, Cold Squad is in a position to syndicate and the presence of Cold Case, and the possible consumer and industry confusion between the two shows, may undermine sales and value.

Both CTV and distributor Alliance Atlantis are in awkward positions with Cold Squad. The situation highlights a perennial dilemma for Canadian film and television distributors and broadcasters: go with the high-end production values of an American hit, or continue to support domestic production that struggles just to be made? It’s an issue with greater resonance when the choice involves shows of similar content.

According to Nielsen Media Research data independently supplied to Playback, the average Canadian audience (18+) for the first four episodes of Cold Case was 1.2 million viewers. The average audience (18+) of Cold Squad’s last season was 335,000 per episode on CTV.

The discrepancies in the audience size only confound the issue for CTV, which is forced to deal with Canadian content by dint of its CRTC licence.

‘We’re not in the business of delivering culture, but we can’t deliver just American programming,’ says Rick Lewchuk, CTV senior VP of program planning and promotions. ‘We are committed to running Canadian drama. We believe in it. Some shows do better than others.’

CTV commissioned Vancouver-based Cold Squad in 1997 as part of its deal sweetener with the CRTC to get the BC-CTV (formerly VTV) licence in Vancouver. More recently, Bill Mustos, senior VP of dramatic programming at CTV, canceled the series last year then brought it back at the last minute, when ratings began to improve, in part because of successful repeats of Cold Squad on AAC-owned Showcase.

CTV later picked up the rights to Cold Case. CTV also airs Bruckheimer’s CSI, CSI: Miami, both made with AAC, and The Amazing Race.

CTV has indicated that Cold Squad will likely air at a new time, Sundays at 10 p.m., a timeslot it shares in rotation with new seasons of The Sopranos, The Eleventh Hour and Nip/Tuck. Cold Case airs Sundays at 8 p.m.

CTV has not yet formally scheduled Cold Squad because the network doesn’t announce its January schedule until a few weeks in advance for competitive reasons, says Lewchuk. At press time, he wasn’t sure whether Eleventh Hour or Cold Squad would air in January. ‘Everything is possible,’ he says.

When asked whether CTV viewers might be confused by Cold Squad and Cold Case, especially when they air on the same night, Lewchuk says no. ‘We have three different Law & Orders and two different CSIs,’ he explains. ‘Viewers are smart enough to differentiate.’ Having both series, meanwhile, eliminates the challenge of another network scheduling Cold Case against Cold Squad, he adds.

The legal friction puts longtime Cold Squad coproducer and distributor Alliance Atlantis in a difficult position because of its cozy relationship with Bruckheimer and CBS Productions. The CSI franchise represents one-third of AAC’s entertainment group revenue in the most recent fiscal year.

Meanwhile, AAC has the U.S. distribution rights for Cold Squad, but hasn’t yet sold Cold Squad to a U.S. broadcaster.

AAC refused to comment on this story.