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2 networks have designs on 'Project Runway'

Lifetime announces a deal to air the show but NBC alleges breach of contract.

April 08, 2008|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Call it a catfight over a catwalk.

Lifetime Networks said Monday that it had staged a coup by stitching up the rights to the popular reality show "Project Runway." But before the cable channel could take the wraps off, rival NBC Universal sued the show's producer, Weinstein Co., alleging breach of contract.

NBC Universal owns Bravo, the cable channel that has been the home of the signature show hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum. "Project Runway" pits aspiring fashion designers in a competition to sew glamorous and often outrageous creations for models to wear as they strut the catwalk.

"Project Runway" will move in November to Lifetime, the top-rated cable network among women that is jointly owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp.

The five-year deal with Weinstein Co. -- which also includes the TV rights to more than a dozen films -- was worth more than $150 million, according to three people familiar with the terms who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them.

Lifetime was willing to write Weinstein Co. a big check to win the rights to the hip show. Negotiations had broken down with NBC Universal, according to the suit filed in New York state court, because NBC would not agree to pay millions of dollars more "to acquire a package that included television rights to second-tier Weinstein Co. films unrelated to the program." The movies included "Transamerica," "Sex Traffic" and "Suburban Mayhem."

Lifetime Networks, which has a separate movie channel, has been striving to attract a younger, hipper audience and shed its frumpy image. A year ago Lifetime hired ABC executive Andrea Wong to give the channel a makeover.

"Ever since I got here, we've been trying to evolve Lifetime by increasing its energy and vibrancy with programming that is relevant and optimistic," Wong said Monday. 'Project Runway' is a great show, and it's a perfect fit for Lifetime."

Not so fast, NBC Universal said.

The media giant charged in its complaint that the company had been denied the right of "first refusal" to keep the program and any spinoff series on Bravo or its other properties.

Bravo was preparing for the show's fifth cycle. Casting sessions were held during the last two weeks. The channel had planned to air the new episodes this summer.

NBC, charging that Weinstein Co. had engaged in "sham negotiations" for nearly two months, said it was unaware until Friday that Weinstein Co. had an agreement with another network even though Weinstein Co. finalized its deal with Lifetime in early February.

In the suit, NBC contends that Weinstein Co. co-founder Harvey Weinstein gave his assurances to NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker in January at a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills that NBC's rights would be preserved. There, NBC maintained, Weinstein allegedly told Zucker that he would not embarrass him.

"You can only have in your life five true friends and I consider you one of my five friends," the lawsuit quoted Weinstein as saying to Zucker.

David Boies, an attorney for Weinstein, said that although he could not comment on whether Weinstein considered Zucker one of his friends, the suit had no merit. "The Weinstein Co. never agreed to a right of first refusal," Boies said.

Boies said it came down to a simple business decision, and Lifetime was willing to pay "substantially more" than NBC. "This is one of the most popular franchises on cable TV and they thought they could get it for a low-ball price," he said. "They gambled and lost."

Although Lifetime and Weinstein Co. made their deal in early February, it was not announced until Monday. Lifetime said it needed the time to negotiate separate agreements with the show's talent. In addition to Klum, the show features Tim Gunn, the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc. He serves as the mentor and coach to the aspiring fashionistas.

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meg.james@latimes.com

Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.

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