Humana Inc. wishes the creators of "St. Elsewhere" had looked elsewhere when they dreamed up the name of a fictional company to take over the television show's decrepit hospital.
The giant hospital chain has sued NBC-TV, which broadcasts the Emmy-award-winning show, for copyright infringement, trying to stop the network from using the name "Ecumena" for the company said to have bought St. Eligius hospital.
"We're not trying to stop the program, but we just feel the use of Ecumena is an infringement on the Humana trademark. ... It just simply sounds so much like Humana," said George Atkins, a Humana vice president. "As far as the program is concerned, I think most of the people here like the program. Our problem is not with the content of the show."
Late yesterday, a federal district judge in Paducah, Ky., refused Humana's request to block the showing of last night's episode of the show after NBC agreed to run a disclaimer saying that Ecumena is not a real company. However, Humana said it would continue to pursue the case, which was filed Tuesday in Louisville, Ky., where Humana is based, but heard in Paducah because the judge first assigned it turned out to be a Humana stockholder.
John Tinker, one of the show's writers at MTM Productions, said no imitation was intended. "We weren't thinking of them at all," he said. The Ecumena name came up as a play on the word "ecumenical," he said.
Nevertheless, there do seem to be some similarities between Ecumena and Humana. In the show, Ecumena is a for-profit hospital company, based in the Midwest, that modernizes St. Eligius and adds an artificial heart program to the fictional Boston Hospital. In real life, Humana is a for-profit hospital company, based in Louisville, that specializes in taking over and modernizing poorly performing hospitals, and operates the nation's only permanent artificial heart program in Louisville. Even the blue-and-white Ecumena and Humana logos are similar, according to Humana.
Ellen Miller-Wachtel, general attorney for NBC -- whose "Saturday Night Live" has poked fun at a giant oil company named Texxon, with no complaints -- said, "We believe that there is absolutely no merit to Humana's complaint."
She said the network's censors hadn't felt the need to review "St. Elsewhere's" content for possible trademark infringement. "We wouldn't be concerned about an issue like this, because we don't believe it's an infringement of anybody's rights," she said.