World: Stuart Elliott in America

Did you hear about the company in California that's offering pet owners the chance to clone their cats and dogs? Maybe that's the cause of the recent outbreak of cloning of reality programming on American TV.

The heads of the major US broadcast networks, along with the leading names in TV production, are embroiled in an ugly public spat over whether shows are being ripped off. At the moment, Madison Avenue is watching from the sidelines, but that could change if the warfare threatens to diminish the value of commercial time on the shows.

Behind the fighting is a rush by networks to bring out series that are suspiciously similar to programmes scheduled to be introduced by competitors, but aren't yet on the air. The pre-emptive strikes have led to a bitter war of words just as the big autumn TV season is poised to get under way.

"It's pretty sad that unethical behaviour can deny people their intellectual property," Stephen McPherson, the president of ABC Entertainment, complained in The New York Times. "If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, theft is the lowest form of creativity," Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks told USA Today.

To be sure, TV has never lacked for copycat series seeking to capitalise on hits. And there are innumerable shows with similar premises showing up on primetime schedules simultaneously. But never has there been such a spate of knock-offs beating their inspirations to the punch for viewers and advertising dollars.

So far, the finger-pointing is singling out Fox Broadcasting, for reality series that are raising hackles at ABC and NBC. Not long after ABC announced a US version of the Channel 4 hit Wife Swap for its autumn schedule, Fox added to its summer line-up a show called Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy. The first three episodes of the Fox version have delivered boffo ratings: 7.5 million viewers, then 9.3 million and 7.8 million.

Needless to say, ABC is stewing, anxious that whatever interest there may be among audiences and agencies in shows about mother-switching will be sated by the time Wife Swap starts in September. "If Wife Swap fails because of this," Michael Davies, its producer, warned the Times, "our business is changed forever."

Next it was NBC's turn to yowl when, after it scheduled a reality series featuring boxers called The Contender, from Katzenberg's DreamWorks and the Survivor producer Mark Burnett, Fox - which lost the bidding for rights to the show - said it would present, yes, a reality series featuring boxers, called The Next Great Champ. That led NBC to push up the premiere of The Contender to November from January, which led Fox to move the first episode of its show to September, a month or two before it was expected.

Then it was ABC's turn in the barrel again when, no sooner had it announced beating Fox in the bidding for a US version of Channel 4's Super Nanny, Fox said it would work with Granada to introduce a series entitled Nanny 911.

The Fox reality czar Mike Darnell said the fact Granada also had a nanny format on hand proves his network isn't a kleptomaniacal channel, but ABC was not mollified.

Maybe what all those feuding executives need is a scolding from the ultimate British nanny, Mary Poppins.