Zucker accuses Weinstein of ignoring contract

Jeff Zucker and Harvey Weinstein proclaimed undying friendship at a breakfast early last year. Now they’re swords-drawn antagonists, and Zucker is taking Weinstein to court.

The subject of the litigation: NBC Universal and its chairman Zucker charge that Weinstein, head of the Weinstein Co., has ignored the contract and sold “Project Runway,” the biggest hit on NBC U’s Bravo, to Lifetime.

Lifetime’s upfront lunch for reporters on April 14 in New York turned into a cork-popping celebration, featuring Weinstein as the main guest.

In prepared remarks, Weinstein, full of impish humor and shiny-eyed mischief, said he’s trying to work his way back into Zucker’s good graces through three years of indentured servitude, i.e., by chauffeuring Zucker’s kids to school every morning and taking up cleaning duties for all of the Zucker domiciles.

Bravo still has one more 14-episode cycle of “Runway” (the show’s fifth) to play off in the summer before Lifetime takes over the show in November. But the Bravo lawsuit states that Weinstein didn’t give it a chance to match the Lifetime offer, despite a right-of-first-refusal agreement.

Paragraph 22 of the suit injects a personal note, quoting Weinstein as telling Zucker at a January ’07 breakfast: “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.”

When a tough competitor like Lifetime hijacks a Bravo series that consistently draws more young women than just about any other cable show, it doesn’t take a legal scholar to predict that Zucker will marshal NBC’s lawyers like a drill sergeant.

The NBC U action alleges that Weinstein’s “deception” has done “irreparable harm” to Bravo, which explains why Weinstein jocularly told reporters at the Lifetime upfront that the only chance he has of becoming friends again with Zucker is to become a liveried driver for Zucker’s household.

Industry experts consider the litigation pro forma: Even if a New York state judge looks kindly on NBC’s complaint, there’s little likelihood that Bravo will get “Runway” back; at worst, Lifetime may have to pay a bump-up in license fees if Bravo gets the right to match the current offer.

Any matching would be convoluted because the Lifetime deal encompasses not only 140 future episodes of “Runway” (28 a year over the five-year length of the contract) but 70 Weinstein movies, and two more 14-episode reality series: a half-hour spinoff called “The Models of Project Runway” and “Project Pygmalion,” a career-makeover show in which an average woman goes through a training drill with experts and consultants to learn about a discipline she aspires to pursue.

Published estimates put the overall dollar figure for the series and movies around $150 million, with the license fee of “Runway” in the $800,000-an-episode range (compared with the $600,000-per that Bravo was ponying up under its current deal).

Andrea Wong, president and CEO of Lifetime, is elated by the deal because “it moves us closer toward getting even more women 18 to 49 to watch the network.” The advertisers who buy spots on Lifetime pay a premium for these 18-49ers, so any ratings increase in the demo goes right to the network’s bottom line.

“Runway” becomes the third element of a three-pronged strategy aimed at lowering the network’s median age in primetime to below 48, according to Wong. The first element, “Army Wives,” the highest-rated series in Lifetime’s 24-year history, returns for a second season of scripted hours on June 8.

The second element is the broad category of series and movie development. On April 12, “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” — starring Dermot Mulroney, Gretchen Mol and Emily Watson — racked up Lifetime’s best Nielsen numbers for an original movie in 13 years.

In general, a big percentage of the network’s forthcoming series and movies “have a lighter, brighter touch,” says Susanne Daniels, president of programming for Lifetime. Daniels bills one committed hourlong pilot, “Drop Dead Diva,” as “Legally Blonde Meets Ugly Betty.”

The original-movie projects range from a Rosie O’Donnell weeper about a runaway child to adaptations of novels by Candace Bushnell (“Sex & the City”), Gigi Levangie Grazer (“The Starter Wife”) and John Updike, whose bestseller “The Terrorist” is in script development.

The movies from Weinstein include “The Great Debaters,” “The Nanny Diaries,” “Miss Potter” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” Some of these titles will have no pay TV deals, so they’ll get to Lifetime unusually early, within a year of their theatrical releases.

If Lifetime looks like a winner, is Bravo the big loser? Not if you showed up at Bravo’s upfront breakfast in New York last week, where the network announced 12 returning series and three new ones.

Although it’s losing what’s clearly it’s biggest show, “Bravo has reloaded,” says Larry Novenstern, executive VP of national electronic media for Optimedia Intl. “It’s got good development in the works.”

Aaron Cohen, executive VP of national broadcast for Horizon Media, says, “Bravo should recover very well by doing other versions of the type of programming” represented by ‘Runway.’ ”

Lifetime will make sure people know “Runway” has changed addresses in November by a massive marketing/publicity campaign and by keeping the series on Wednesday at 10 p.m., the same timeslot where it resides on Bravo.

And the beauty part for Lifetime, says Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director of media buyer Mindshare, is that “Runway” fans who never watch the network might stick around for other Lifetime shows, which the network will promote heavily during “Runway.”

College women, in particular, who like “Runway” and follow the show to Lifetime might discover “Army Wives” or an original movie or two.

But it’s not as though coeds never watch Lifetime. Charles Coletta, who teaches popular culture at Bowling Green U., says there is one show that his female students watch regularly on the network: reruns of “The Golden Girls.”

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