'Runway' off to Lifetime; NBC Uni sues

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In a bombshell announcement, "Project Runway" producer the Weinstein Co. said Monday that Bravo's signature series will be moving to Lifetime in a five-year deal, starting with its sixth season in November.

Bravo's parent company, NBC Universal, countered by filing a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the Weinstein Co. on Monday aimed at preventing "Runway's" jump to Lifetime.

The suit, filed in New York Supreme Court, claims that NBC Uni and the Weinstein Co. have been negotiating for more than a year over exclusive rights to additional seasons of the show, including the sixth, and says that the Weinstein Co. "threatened to take future cycles of the program to a competing television network unless (NBC Uni) agreed to pay many millions of additional dollars to TWC to acquire a 'package' that included television rights to second-tier TWC films unrelated" to "Runway."

"Runway" has broken ratings records for Bravo, where it has aired for four seasons. Casting on the fifth cycle is under way.

As part of its deal, which could be worth as much as $150 million, Lifetime acquired rights to the Weinstein features "Miss Potter," "The Great Debaters," "Derailed," "Bobby," "Transamerica" and "The Nanny Diaries," among others. Of those, the top grosser was "Derailed," with $36 million.

It's believed that that the movie package is different than the one NBC Uni claims it was offered, which is said to include "I Could Never Be Your Woman," "The Gathering," "The Girl in the Park," "Closing the Ring" and "Murderous Intent." However, there is some overlap as the latter three titles also are part of Lifetime's deal.

NBC Uni's filing also claims that after the Weinstein Co. signed the deal with Lifetime on Feb. 7, the company continued to "engage in sham negotiations" with NBC Uni over those rights and "intentionally concealed" that fact that Weinstein had entered into an "invalid agreement" with Lifetime since NBC Uni has right of first refusal on the show. The suit claims that co-chairman Harvey Weinstein assured NBC Uni that it would have the opportunity to match any other network's offer.

"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 Co. unfortunately has refused to honor," a representative said. "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."

For its part, the Weinstein Co. claims that "NBC has sued to try to disrupt the series moving to Lifetime" after "declining to compete for the right to have" the show.

"We believe that this lawsuit is without merit," Weinstein counsel David Boies said. "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."

One source close to the show called the suit "sour grapes" on the part of NBC Uni, while other sources insisted that Bravo simply wasn't willing to pony up the license fee to keep "Runway," allowing Lifetime to step in and scoop it up.

Lifetime Networks president and CEO Andrea Wong declined to discuss the lawsuit, saying only that "we have a signed contract."

Asked how the deal came about, Wong, who said she's a fan of the show, said only that "Harvey and I were talking about the opportunity to work together. This came up, and I jumped at the opportunity to get it."

In a statement, Bob and Harvey Weinstein thanked NBC Uni and Bravo for "all their contribution and support."

"Today's announcement is a celebration of all of our success, and having Lifetime's unique cable reach will ensure that the show will continue to grow and expand in the years to come," the duo said.

Host Heidi Klum and mentor Tim Gunn also will be making the move to Lifetime with the show. It's unclear whether judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia also will be following "Runway" to its new network, though Wong said she "plans to keep the show exactly the way it is."

Wong noted that Lifetime reaches 7 million more homes than Bravo and has double the total-day rating among women. She also pointed out "Runway's" strong ratings among women. Season 4 averaged 3.8 rating among women 18-49, while the March 5 season finale drew a 6.1 in the demo, according to Live+7 data from Nielsen Media Research.

"It's clearly a leading show for women, whether cable or broadcast, and Lifetime is the No. 1 network for women," she said.

Industry observers predicted that the show will continue to thrive after it moves to Lifetime. It also will be a game-changer for the network, which has had success in the scripted series and TV movie areas but hasn't been able to score a hit unscripted series. Reality has been a priority for the female-skewing cable channel since the arrival of Wong, the former reality chief at ABC.

"Runway's" network switch, believed to be the biggest ever in cable, echoes that of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which moved to UPN in 2001 after four seasons on WB Network over a license-fee dispute with producer 20th Century Fox TV.

NBC Uni wants a court order stopping the Weinstein Co. from granting rights to future cycles without first honoring the first-look deal and to declare that it is entitled to those rights. It seeks damages but not a specific amount, only that "money damages would be inadequate to protect" its interests because it would not include compensation for future cycles and any spinoff.

"Runway" is executive produced by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz of Magical Elves. Klum and her managers Desiree Gruber and Jane Cha of Full Picture also executive produce the series, which last week became the first reality program to win a Peabody Award.
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