'Law' suit for NBC Uni, Wolf

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"Law & Order" chief Dick Wolf is facing some real-life legal woes.

Putting a major crack in one of the most successful partnerships in television, NBC Universal on Friday filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the "L&O" creator in a contract dispute over Wolf's executive producer fees for the three "L&O" dramas: the mothership series and spinoffs "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

The complaint was formally filed by NBC and the former "L&O" producing entity Universal Network Television/Universal Network Programming, which was folded into what is now Universal Media Studios after the 2004 merger of NBC and Universal.

At stake are tens of millions of dollars in executive producer fees for Wolf.

At the center of the dispute is an agreement signed in September 2004 by the two sides.

NBC Uni claims that the agreement is a "pay-or-play" contract calling for Wolf to be paid executive producer fees in 48-episode blocks upon each order from NBC regardless of how many episodes actually are ordered.

For instance, because NBC most recently gave "L&O" a one-season pickup in May, NBC Uni contends that if the network opts to cancel the show at season's end, it will owe Wolf another 24 episodes worth of license fees.

Meanwhile, Wolf regards the 48-episode guarantee as a "kill fee," in which he has to be paid executive producer fees for two additional seasons of any "L&O" series when NBC decides to cancel it, the suit says, claiming that such interpretation would provide Wolf "with an unintended windfall of millions of dollars."

In a statement, NBC and UMS said they "value their relationship with Dick Wolf."

"This dispute relates solely to a disagreement concerning specific terms of the contract between them," NBC and UMS said. "NBC and Universal Media Studios have filed this case to seek a determination from the court concerning the disputed contractual provisions."

The lawsuit is said to have come as a surprise to Wolf.

"NBC Universal is trying to rewrite an existing contract," he said through a representative. "Apparently, our partner is willing to commission rewrites during the strike."

Wolf first informed NBC Uni of his "interpretation" of their agreement March 27, the suit said. At that time, NBC and Wolf were involved in intense renewal negotiations and, for the first time, the main series as well as "Criminal Intent" were facing possible cancellation.

Still, in May, NBC handed out an eleventh-hour renewal to both "L&O" and "CI." What's more, despite the brewing legal dispute, NBC Uni extended Wolf's overall deal by four years, keeping his Wolf Films at UMS through 2012.

The key point in the dispute is an alleged discrepancy between the language referring to the producer's guaranteed executive producer fees in the shortform preliminary deal drawn in 2004 and the longform agreement that followed.

In the suit, NBC Uni wants a court to either declare that the official contract means what the shortform deal says it means or to "reform" the "mistakenly written Wolf agreement" so that it matches the shortform pact.

NBC Uni, repped by outside counsel Scott Edelman, Michael Dore and Lynn Hang of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, seeks no monetary award other than costs of the suit.

While this is the first public legal fight between NBC Uni and Wolf, there were rumblings about a disagreement over syndication revenue owed to Wolf leading to the 2004 contract renegotiations.

The "L&O" franchise has been a crown jewel for NBC Uni's TV operations, bringing in billions of dollars of revenue from syndication and international sales. It was a driving force behind NBC's May 2004 acquisition of Universal, which produced the drama series.

In its first order of business after the merger, NBC Uni announced a sweeping renewal of all three "L&O" series as well as a two-year extension of Wolf's Wolf Films production pact.

"There's no one more important to the success of our primetime schedule," Jeff Zucker, then-president of NBC Universal Television Group, said of Wolf at the time.

Things changed somewhat during the past couple of seasons as the ratings for the main series and "CI" began to erode, while "SVU" continues to be a formidable ratings draw.

Matt Belloni in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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