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Lifetime signs deal to grab 'Project Runway' from Bravo, NBCU sues


By Christopher Rocchio and Steve Rogers, 04/07/2008 

Tim Gunn apparently wasn't kidding when he said the state of Project Runway was "in flux" beyond the show's upcoming fifth season.

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In a move that seems to make it clear that Lifetime plans to establish itself as a significant player in the reality TV space, the women's television network -- which hired former ABC reality chief Andrea Wong as its president and CEO last year -- has struck a deal to grab Project Runway, Bravo's critically-acclaimed flagship series that ranks as cable's top-rated reality series, from its cable network competitor.

Lifetime Networks and The Weinstein Company have announced a five-year deal that will bring Project Runway to Lifetime beginning with the reality series' sixth season which the network has already scheduled to debut in November 2008.

"Project Runway is one of the best television programs on the air today on broadcast or cable. I am a huge fan. All my friends are huge fans," Wong gushed in announcing the move.  "We welcome The Weinstein Company, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn to the Lifetime family for many walks down the runway to come."

Bravo's NBC Universal parent company filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court against The Weinstein Company on Monday in response to the Lifetime deal.

"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 said in a statement released Monday afternoon.  "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."

The Weinstein Company is countering NBC Universal's lawsuit by claiming NBC declined to compete for the rights to future Project Runway editions beyond the upcoming fifth season to which the parties were already contracted.

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

NBC Universal's lawsuit alleges The Weinstein Company CEO Harvey Weinstein had promised NBC it would have an opportunity to match any offer for Project Runway's rights, The New York Times reported Monday afternoon. 

However the lawsuit claims Weinstein instead completed a deal with Lifetime on February 7 despite the fact he allegedly continued to negotiate with NBC Universal for two more months.

Wong -- who was responsible for many of the reality shows ABC still currently airs, including Dancing with the Stars, during her years at the Disney-owned network -- told The Times she had no knowledge of The Weinstein Company's alleged continued negotiations with NBC after the contract was signed with Lifetime.

"It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the lawsuit because we are not a party to it," she told The Times.  "We have a signed contract with the Weinstein Company to acquire the show."

In the lawsuit, NBC Universal argued a clause in its original contract with The Weinstein Company would have prevented any network that acquired Project Runway's rights from broadcasting the show for a year, according to The Times.  However, NBC's lawsuit claims that the network had agreed to drop that clause in exchange for "a promise" from The Weinstein Company that it would have a right of first refusal that would give it the opportunity to match another network's Project Runway bid.

In addition to not honoring the right of first refusal NBC Universal allegedly had, NBC also alleges that The Weinstein Company failed to properly notify it that another network had made an offer for Project Runway, according to Daily Variety.

"They've been sold stolen goods," and NBC Universal "insider" told Variety about Lifetime's Project Runway deal.

The Weinstein Company had been looking for a new home for Project Runway for a while, according to Broadcasting & Cable.  The reason, sources with knowledge on the situation told Broadcasting & Cable, is that the company was unhappy with Bravo's decision to spawn several other reality competition shows similar to Project Runway -- non-Weinstein shows like Top Chef, Top Design, and Shear Genius -- that are "diluting the uniqueness of the show."

In addition, sources with knowledge of the situation described NBC Universal's lawsuit as "sour grapes," Broadcasting & Cable reported.

Had NBC Universal retained Project Runway's rights, the show would have been moving off Bravo regardless, according to The Times, which reported initial talks between NBC and The Weinstein Company had included a condition that would have it move to a larger NBC Universal-owned network. 

NBC Universal had agreed to the condition, The Times reported, which probably would have resulted in Project Runway moving to the USA Network or perhaps even NBC itself (in addition to Bravo, NBC Universal also owns numerous other networks, including NBC, USA, Sci Fi, and Lifetime's Oxygen competitor, which it just acquired earlier this year).

The Project Runway deal is reportedly part of a larger programming agreement in which The Weinstein Company will also develop other projects -- including a Runway spinoff, perhaps -- for the network and also gives Lifetime the rights to a movie package from the company, according to Variety. (Despite its Runway ownership, The Weinstein Company, which includes Dimension Films, is primarily focused on producing and distributing feature films.)

Specific terms have not been disclosed, however The Times reported an executive involved with the negotiation estimated the total cost to Lifetime at "over $150 million."    

Magical Elves -- the production company run by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, the Project Runway executive producers who unlike The Weinstein Company, have also produced some of Bravo's other Runway-like reality competition shows -- will continue to produce the show's new Lifetime editions.

Lead judge Heidi Klum and fashion guru Tim Gunn will also both make the move to Lifetime, however the network's announcement made no mention of clothing designer Michael Kors and Elle Magazine fashion director Nina Garcia, Project Runway's two other regular judges.

"Fashion is about change, so we're looking forward to saying hello to Lifetime, our new fashionable home for our fashionable series," said Klum. "We're excited to bring Project Runway to the  No. 1 network for women."

"Lifetime and I will definitely 'make it work' together," said Gunn about Project Runway.  "I am very excited to be part of the Lifetime family."

When reached by Reality TV World, a Lifetime spokesperson could not provide any additional details about Project Runway's future editions, including whether the "five year" agreement is for only five seasons of the show or covers a five-year period in which more than one Project Runway installment could be produced annually.

"Project Runway is our programming crown jewel and great credit goes to Heidi, Tim and The Magical Elves for building more than a television show, but an actual brand that influences fashion interests and pop culture," The Weinstein Company co-founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein jointly stated in Lifetime's announcement.  "Whether it be our recent Peabody Award or the great ratings we have seen each year, Project Runway's millions of loyal viewers have made the show a nationwide phenomenon."

"We would like to sincerely thank NBC Universal 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.  Lifetime is one of the strongest cable networks in the industry, with great leadership and a true commitment to original programming."

Lifetime's Project Runway deal does not include the rights to Gunn's other Bravo reality series -- Tim Gunn's Guide to Style, a non-Weinstein Company series that Gunn previously stated the network had renewed for a second season.

Prior to Project Runway's fourth-season finale last month, Gunn stated he was uncertain about the show's status beyond its fifth installment, which the network began casting for last month.

"I'll tell you that things are in flux and I don't know beyond Season 5," he told the Chicago Tribune at the time.  "I'm just thrilled to have a Season 5."

In addition, Gunn subsequently stated Project Runway's fifth season would begin filming in June. 

It remains unclear when -- assuming Lifetime and The Weinstein Company follow through with their plans to premiere Project Runway's sixth season in November -- Bravo would plan to broadcast the show's fifth edition.  With the exception of the show's third edition which premiered in Summer 2006, Bravo has debuted all of Project Runway's previous editions in November or early December.  In its lawsuit, NBC Universal alleges that The Weinstein Company had asked Bravo to debut the fifth season in July and the network had agreed to do so, according to Variety.

A Bravo spokesperson had no immediate comment when reached by Reality TV World.

Lifetime has added several reality series to its programming schedule since Wong arrived at the network in May 2007, including America's Psychic Challenge, How to Look Good Naked, Matched In Manhattan, Top This Party, and Your Mama Don't Dance.

(Photo credit Lifetime)


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