OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

The media giant Viacom has averted a face-off in a trial against a foe who had proved to be a surprisingly wily and determined opponent.

Was it News Corporation? Disney? AOL Time Warner? No, it was the film and commercial director Spike Lee.

Lee, who also runs an agency in partnership with Omnicom's DDB, until last week had totally scrambled the extensive, and expensive, plans by Viacom to reintroduce one of its cable TV channels, most recently known as the National Network or TNN.

Viacom wanted to rebrand TNN as Spike TV, to play up a repositioned identity as the first cable network for men, especially aged 18 to 34. With series such as Stripperella, a cartoon featuring the voice of Pamela Anderson, Spike TV was intended to better define TNN's offerings to viewers (already two-thirds male) and advertisers in a crowded, competitive cable market.

The Spike moniker, developed by a creative studio called Trollback & Company, was meant to connote a male-centric network with a playful, laddie sensibility, evoking namesakes such as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike the bulldog from the vintage MGM cartoons, the band leader-comedian Spike Jones, the British comedian Spike Milligan and the young director Spike Jonze of Being John Malkovich fame.

But unlike all the other Spikes, Lee, whose given name is Shelton, took offence at Viacom's plans, already under way in the form of a big pre-launch ad campaign to herald Spike TV's 16 June start date. Lee went to court to complain that Viacom was seeking to capitalise on his prestige and reputation and implying he was involved with the programming, which he dismissed after one hearing as "some Stripperella crap".

And would you believe it? A judge agreed with him, issuing a temporary injunction that prevented Viacom from going forward with the renaming. Viacom appealed, and another judge refused to lift the injunction, ruling that "a celebrity can in fact establish a vested right in the use of only their first name or a surname", citing Cher, Liza, Madonna and Sting.

Now, Sting TV might have raised eyebrows, not to mention the hackles of a certain singer named Gordon Sumner, because of the uniqueness of that name in the pantheon of male stars. But Spike? C'mon.

No matter what was asserted by Lee and his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran (who in this case was proclaiming: "If the name is Spike, it's not to like"), there was no evidence that the public made any connection between Lee and Spike TV, or that any connection could be made between Lee's artsy movies and the lowest-common-denominator fare Spike TV was to show.

The trial was averted last week when a settlement was reached between Viacom and Lee and the injunction was lifted, enabling the Spike-ing of TNN to proceed.

Still, Viacom ought to be chastised for its apparent failure to have a Plan B if anything went wrong with the rebranding.

(It lost at least $17 million on the abortive campaign and other pre-launch costs.)

And what about the judiciary believing there could be one, and only one, Spike in the vast panoply that is the American popular and commercial culture? It was a misguided notion that fortunately has been - if the word can be used without generating another lawsuit from Lee - spiked.