Accusations are flying from NBC Universal that The Weinstein Co lied to Jeff Zucker and engaged in “deception” and “sham negotiations” over Project Runway. This is turning into a major showbiz feud — especially after Harvey Weinstein personally assured Jeff Zucker, “I will not embarrass you”. See UPDATE below:

project-runway-101.jpgGiven his recent investment in reviving the Halston label, newly married Harvey Weinstein shares with his wife an interest in fashion. But even before he shelled out those big bucks, Harv’s and his brother Bob’s Miramax started the hottest fashion show on TV, Project Runway, before it was taken over by their successor, The Weinstein Co. Today came the surprise announcement that the No. 1 reality series on cable is moving to Lifetime beginning in November with the premiere of Season 6. Both Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn are coming along for the 5-year deal. But there’s a big wrinkle: NBC Universal is suing!

NBC Universal, which owns Bravo where the show airs, filed a lawsuit at 9 AM this morning in the New York Supreme Court against The Weinstein Company to block the move. The Weinsteins said in a statement today that NBC “declined to compete for the right to have Project Runway” and is now trying “to disrupt the series moving to Lifetime”.

harv21.jpgBut NBC Universal released this official statement to me: “NBC Universal has continuing legal rights related to Project Runway, including a right of first refusal to future cycles of the series, which The Weinstein Company unfortunately has refused to honor. NBC Universal regrettably had no alternative but to bring legal action to enforce its rights to this program, including the right to decide whether it is in the best interest of the company to continue to air the show under the proposed financial terms.”

An NBC Uni source explained: “We were in discussions with Harvey regarding Project Runway. And we found out that he had signed a deal in February with Lifetime. So it was kind of pseudo-negotiations in spite of the fact we had the right to first refusal and first negotiation on a spin-off or another cycle of Project Runway. So then we filed for our legal right this morning.”

Reacted David Boies, counsel to The Weinstein Company: “We believe that this lawsuit is without merit. While good for the market for lawyers, it is always unfortunate when parties try to win in court what they have lost in the marketplace.”

UPDATE: To sum up, the lawsuit accuses The Weinstein Co of “deception” among other choice words and claims NBC since teaming up with the producers in 2003 had the right to 5 cycles of the show as well as a right of first refusal to acquire additional cycles, plus rights of first negotiation and first refusal with respect to spin-offs of the program. NBC claims TWC didn’t honor those rights and “never intended to negotiate in good faith”. The complaint seeks to stop Project Runway‘s move to Lifetime in violation of its rights and is demanding a preliminary and permanent injuction, as well as compensatory damages for breach of agreement.

zucker2.jpgAccording to the complaint, negotiations to resolve some disputes and to plan for a new Project Runway deal began in January 2007 at a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills between Weinstein, NBC Uni chief Jeff Zucker and entertainment lieutenant Marc Graboff. Out of that conversation, an agreement was reached that NBC had right of first refusal to license future cycles of Project Runway for airing on any non-Bravo NBCU platform.

NBC says Weinstein “threatened to take future cycles of the program to a competing TV network unless plaintiffs agreed to pay many millions of additional dollars to TWC to acquire a ‘package’ that included television rights to second-tier TWC films”. A source told me, “These were not blockbuster titles. Instead they were ones no one has ever heard of, such as I Could Never Be Your Woman or The Gathering.

It was during this meeting that, according to the lawsuit, Harvey Weinstein gave Jeff Zucker his word that TWC would honor NBCU’s right of first refusal in exchange for concessions, “going to far as to assure Mr. Zucker with words to the effect of: “You can only have in your life five true friends and I consider you one of my five friends. And I’m telling you I will not embarrass you.”

christian_l.jpgThis and other points were committed to writing on January 15th, 2007, and emailed to the Weinsteins’ agent, Jim Wiatt of the William Morris Agency. “Harvey gave Jeff his word that, should he or TWC sell or license Runway to another network (other than a network which Harvey or TWC owns or controls) NBC Universal will have a first refusal right to acquire the series for NBC, USA or another non-Bravo platform.”

In response, TWC confirmed by email sent by the agent on February 22nd, 2007, “Harvey intends to live by the terms of the letter you sent to Jim Wiatt on 1/19/07.”

According to the complaint, negotiations resumed in earnest starting September 2007 through April 2008. But NBC didn’t find out until last Friday that Weinstein had signed a “secret package deal” with Lifetime for Project Runway back on February 7th, 2008, which also included not only the TV rights to the TWC movies but also spin-off rights to Project Runway. Yet Weinstein continued “sham negotiations” with senior management throughout February and March of this year for Project Runway.

I understand that Bravo is devastated by this huge loss to its programming schedule. (I hope to find a way to blame unwatchable Andy Cohen for this mess…) Needless to say, Lifetime is giddy about this programming prize (which NBC Uni execs estimate is costing Lifetime is in the neighborhood of $150 million). Said Lifetime Networks’ President and CEO Andrea Wong: “Having watercooler movies, dramas, and reality shows like Project Runway is what Lifetime Television is all about.” Lifetime is a 50/50 joint venture of Hearst Corp and The Walt Disney Co.

Said Harvey and Bob: “We would like to sincerely thank NBC Universal and Bravo for all their contribution and support… and having Lifetime’s unique cable reach will ensure that the show will continue to grow and expand in the years to come.”

chris
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