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Two Flashy Car Series on a Collision Course : Television: The Chrysler Corp., whose Dodge Viper is featured in CBS’ ‘Viper,’ is seeking to prevent a rival production from using the same title.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the fall, television viewers can count on seeing a new action-filled TV series featuring a crime fighter who combats evil in a fiery red sports car called the Viper.

The only question that remains is how many series matching that description viewers can expect to see.

The Chrysler Corp., which has signed a unique deal with Paramount Television to feature its Dodge Viper sports car in a CBS series called “Viper,” filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles last Friday to prevent Cannell Studios Inc. from producing a separate syndicated TV series of the same name. Stephen J. Cannell is the producer of such past network hits as “The A-Team” and “Hunter,” and of the current syndicated series “Renegade” and “Street Justice.”

Both one-hour “Viper” crime dramas revolve around a high-performance muscle car named Viper--but only the Paramount series has obtained rights to use the actual Dodge Viper.

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“We believe that the Cannell show is an infringement of our Dodge Viper trademark,” said Scott Fosgard, a spokesman for Chrysler, which is seeking a permanent injunction to prevent Cannell from using anything that resembles the trademark, packaging or image of the $50,000 Viper.

In an advertisement currently running in TV trade magazines for Cannell’s “Viper,” a red sports car that Chrysler contends looks like the Dodge Viper whooshes across the page.

“We basically want them to stop production on their series,” Fosgard said.

That won’t be easy. Cannell’s “Viper,” starring martial-arts hero Michael Dudikoff from the “American Ninja” movies, has already been sold to more than 50 TV stations covering 68% of the country. Paramount’s “Viper,” on the other hand, has received a firm commitment from CBS for 13 episodes. Both “Vipers” are scheduled for a fall showdown.

So how did the two Vipers find themselves in the same programming pit? Executives at Cannell and Paramount are keeping quiet about the details until the suit is settled.

Danny Bilson, who was asked by Paramount last year to create the CBS show with his partner, Paul De Meo, suggests that the vying “Vipers” are just a development fluke. Bilson and De Meo created the Disney film “The Rocketeer” and the TV series “The Flash.”

The studio’s research determined that there was a big appetite for a TV series based on a car, part of a recent trend to reach the young male viewers whom advertisers have a hard time pinpointing. Internally at Paramount, “Viper” was reportedly dubbed “Son of Knight Rider,” referring to the NBC series from the early 1980s starring a talking Pontiac Trans-Am.

“I think everybody has been re-evaluating the potential of car shows,” Bilson said, “and if you look in the marketplace, the Viper is a pretty good choice creatively. The car has a big following among car enthusiasts. I really think it was just a case of parallel development.”

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According to Chrysler, Cannell approached the car manufacturer to use the Viper for its series in January, but Chrysler already was in negotiations with Paramount at the time. The trade magazine Inside Media reported that Chrysler will participate in profits and merchandising--such as hats, T-shirts and clothing--from the TV series as part of an advertising and promotional partnership. Chrysler’s cooperation, meanwhile, will help subsidize the expensive series, budgeted at $1.5 million per episode.

Because of the complexity of Paramount’s series--Paramount is also seeking a deal with a toy company to sell a miniature Viper to help offset costs--Bilson claims that the two “Vipers” are really not that alike.

“I think their show is about an agent or something who drives around in a cool car,” he said. “Our show is a big production, a high-tech crime drama that takes place in the near future. The Viper shifts into a second car that Chrysler has been designing for us when it’s in its defender mode. So the red Viper that people see actually has another identity.”

Bilson swears, however, that the Viper will not be endowed with the ability to talk.

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Two Shows Named ‘Viper’

Two one-hour crime dramas scheduled for this fall share the title “Viper,” but one has caused Chrysler Corp. to bite back. The auto maker has filed suit against Stephen J. Cannell for the unauthorized use of its high-performance Dodge Viper. A look at the two shows:

“Viper”

From Stephen J. Cannell

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Stars Michael Dudikoff

Syndicated

Estimated budget under $1 million per episode

Featuring the series star fighting crime in a “crimson chariot,” reportedly a General Motors vehicle.

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“Viper”

From Paramount TV and Chrysler

Still casting for the star

For CBS

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Budgeted at $1.5 million per episode

Featuring a Dodge Viper that transforms into a futuristic car, now being created by Chrysler, for its “defense mode.”


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