NBC sues Weinstein Co. over Lifetime deal

NBC and Bravo aren’t letting “Project Runway” hop the catwalk to Lifetime without a fierce fight.

Peacock has filed suit in New York Supreme Court against “Project Runway” producer the Weinstein Co., asserting the shingle violated NBC and Bravo’s right of first refusal.

Lifetime announced Monday that TWC has signed a five-year deal with the femme-centric cabler to take over the show — cable’s top-rated reality skein — effective November. As a result, Heidi Klum and company will say “auf wiedersehen” to NBC’s Bravo cabler after one final season this summer.

“They’ve been sold stolen goods,” an NBC U insider said of the Lifetime deal.

According to Lifetime prexy-CEO Andrea Wong, the cabler began negotiating a deal with TWC in January and signed the pact Feb. 7. As part of an overall programming agreement with TWC, Lifetime will pick up a movie package from the company and develop a “Runway” spinoff.

” ‘Project Runway’ is one of the best television programs on the air today on broadcast or cable,” Wong said. “I am a huge fan. All my friends are huge fans. Having watercooler movies, dramas and reality shows like ‘Project Runway’ is what Lifetime Television is all about.”

Lifetime’s announcement, however, was overshadowed by NBC U’s lawsuit against TWC.

In a statement, Weinstein counsel David Boies said he believed the lawsuit was “without merit.”

“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,” Boies said.

The hot mess erupted after the Peacock claimed TWC didn’t give NBC U proper notification that another party had made an offer for “Runway,” and that as a result, the sale to Lifetime is invalid.

According to NBC, the two sides met in January 2007 and agreed to a quid pro quo: NBC would strike a “holdback” clause in the “Runway” pact that, should the Weinsteins take the show elsewhere, prevented it from airing on another channel for 12 months. In exchange, NBC said it received the right of first refusal from the Weinsteins.

In the suit, NBC said Weinstein Co. principal Harvey Weinstein assured NBC U Jeff Zucker with these words: “You can only have in your life five true friends and I consider you one of my five friends. And I’m telling you, I will not embarrass you.”

NBC nonetheless sought out — and received — confirmation of the agreement via an email sent to NBC by the William Morris Agency, which reps the Weinsteins.

Now, NBC said, not only did TWC not inform them of the Lifetime deal in February, but the company continued to conduct talks after the fact with the Peacock. NBC now characterizes those discussions as “sham negotiations.”

“They never told us they signed a deal with anyone,” an NBC U insider said. “They knew we believed we had a legal right to a first refusal to any competitive deal they did. We’re asking for what we’re entitled for, to be offered the right to match (Lifetime’s deal). They had a legal obligation to bring a signed deal from a competitor to us. But they concealed the fact that they’d reached a deal.”

The Weinstein Co. declined comment on the post-February negotiations, but an insider blamed “sour grapes.”

“They failed to provide a competitive bid for the show,” an insider said. “They can pull a bunch of stuff out of their hat, but this lawsuit will be thrown out, or fought in court aggressively.”

For their part, Lifetime execs said they didn’t know the Weinsteins had still been conducting talks with NBC U after their deal was done. The announcement was delayed, Wong said, in order to give the Weinstein Co. time to seal new talent deals with host Klum and series regular Tim “Make It Work” Gunn.

NBC U insiders said they’d heard rumors TWC may have done a deal elsewhere, but only learned of the Lifetime pact Friday, when Lifetime lawyers contacted NBC U to inform them that a pact had been struck.

Suit also alleges TWC had been negotiating a package deal for “Runway” in which the show would move from Bravo to another NBC U property, most likely the NBC broadcast net or USA cabler. In addition, the Peacock would be forced to buy a package of TWC movies, with a total package price of $150 million.

“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,” an NBC U spokeswoman 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.”

Plans are still under way for Bravo to air season five of “Runway.” According to the suit, TWC asked Bravo to launch the season in July, rather than in the fall. NBC/Bravo said it agreed to do so in a concession to the Weinsteins.

Now, with Lifetime slated to air its “Runway” in November, that would mean three cycles of the show would air in 2008.

The show’s defection to Lifetime was announced Monday by Wong and Weinstein Co. co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

Also signed on for the Lifetime move: producers Magical Elves, which put the show together for Weinstein. Weinstein is still negotiating new deals with judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia.

For Lifetime, the pickup reps a huge coup for the net, which last year scored with scripted series “Army Wives” and is now poised to do the same on the reality front with “Runway.” After years of starts and stops with unscripted fare, Lifetime has gone aggressive, recently picking up a second season of “How to Look Good Naked,” hosted by Carson Kressley (coincidentally, a Bravo alum).

NBC U owns the first five seasons of “Project Runway,” which means older episodes of the show could conceivably continue to run on Bravo even after the originals move to Lifetime.

The loss of “Runway” would deprive Bravo of its signature show — though it appears NBC U was already willing to live with such a scenario. Talks with TWC had focused on moving “Runway” to the NBC broadcast net (though repeats could’ve remained on Bravo).

NBC U insiders also point out that in 2007, Bravo aired just a few original episodes of “Runway” in November and December, and yet the cabler managed to have its best ratings year ever.

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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