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NBC Univeral and Weinstein Co. take 'Project Runway' case to court

By Christopher Rocchio, 07/18/2008 

Jeff Zucker and Harvey Weinstein's Project Runway battle has reached the courtroom.

The NBC Universal president and The Weinstein Company co-chairman both testified on Thursday during the first hearing on the lawsuit Bravo's parent company filed in response to the production company's surprise five-year deal to bring Project Runway to Lifetime beginning with the reality series' sixth season, Mediaweek reported.

In its lawsuit, which NBC filed in New York Supreme Court immediately after the deal was announced in April, NBC alleges The Weinstein Company breached the parties' contract and didn't give NBC the right to match Lifetime's Runway offer before reaching signing the deal with the women's cable network.

As part of the suit, NBC also filed a preliminary injunction request to prevent The Weinstein Company from marketing and promoting the show's Lifetime edition until the lawsuit is resolved.

Following Thursday's testimony, Judge Richard Lowe declined to rule on NBC's injunction request and a timetable for when he will do so is still unclear, according to Mediaweek.  In addition, Lowe declined to rule on Weinstein's motion for dismissal.

A large portion of the testimony focused on a January 2007 meeting between Zucker, Weinstein and NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio co-chairman Marc Graboff at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, which Mediaweek reported was well after the relationship between Bravo and Weinstein had already "soured."

Weinstein said during testimony that he wanted to sever ties with Bravo after Project Runway's Fall 2006 third season because the network had "ruined the relationship" by copying the show's format to launch other non-Weinstein produced shows like Top Chef and Shear Genius and refusing to pay increased licensing fees, according to Mediaweek.   According to Weinstein, Bravo's refusal forced his production company to produce Project Runway at a $230,000 per episode deficit,

However despite Weinstein's desires, Zucker testified that during the meeting he and Graboff received a verbal promise from Weinstein that NBC Universal would receive a right of first refusal to match any offer that the production company received to move Project Runway to a competing network, Mediaweek reported.

Because Weinstein was eager to cut ties, Zucker testified that in exchange for a right of first refusal, NBC approved accelerated scheduling for Project Runway's fourth and fifth seasons and additionally agreed to move Bravo's flagship series off the network -- possibly to NBC or USA -- for the sixth installment and beyond.

In addition, Zucker also testified NBC agreed to reduce the "hold back" period from one year to six months as a de-facto non-compete clause that barred Weinstein from promoting or airing Project Runway on a rival network, Mediaweek reported.

"[Project Runway was] one of the most central programs to the entire company," said Zucker, according to Mediaweek, which added the NBC Universal president insisted it would have matched Lifetime's offer if given the chance.

Not surprisingly, Weinstein's testimony differed as he disputed Zucker's claims and called the January 2007 meeting a "divorce proceeding."

"I'd rather cut off my arm than give them a right of first refusal," said Weinstein at one point, according to Mediaweek.

However Weinstein admitted he did agree to go to NBC first if approached by a competitor with a better offer -- a promise he claimed he kept after Discovery Communications CEO David Zazlov inquired about acquiring Project Runway (presumably for Discovery's TLC cable channel) for $50 million  in March 2007.

"I believe Zazlov wanted the show in the worst way," said Weinstein said, Mediaweek reported. "I went to NBC first."

But Weinstein claims the talks went nowhere when a possible deal to put Project Runway on any other NBC network but Bravo proved fruitless.

"They kicked me out in 10 minutes," said Weinstein, according to Mediaweek.

In addition to discussing whether Weinstein had made a binding verbal agreement offering NBC a right of first refusal at the January 2007 meeting, Thursday's hearing also focused on a follow-up memo Graboff wrote that summarized the new terms of a deal that might have been agreed upon, Mediaweek reported.

NBC attorney Orin Synder cited several internal e-mails among Weinstein executives and their representatives at the William Morris Agency, arguing the messages proved Weinstein was aware of the new terms and did not dispute them. 

But Weinstein attorney David Boise countered with a July 2007 signed amendment to Project Runway's license agreement which referenced the reduced hold-back period and accelerated schedule for the fourth and fifth seasons but made no mention of a right of first refusal.

According to Mediaweek, NBC's case appears to rest largely on Graboff's testimony of the "custom and practice" in the entertainment industry of doing business based on handshakes and verbal agreements, not signed agreements.  For example, he testified NBC Universal's original deal to air Project Runway was never signed.

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