Legal Tangles of ‘Project Runway’ Keep It Frozen on the Catwalk
Published: November 18, 2008
LOS ANGELES — At a time when audiences are shrinking for almost every type of television program, it stands to reason that producers and network executives would do almost anything to keep on the air a series whose audience is actually growing.
Harvey Weinstein, above, of the Weinstein Company and Jeff Zucker of NBC Universal, below, are embroiled in a dispute over the series “Project Runway.”
Which makes it all the more perplexing that “Project Runway,” the popular reality competition in which aspiring fashion designers face off with their clothing creations, should be stuck in a legal quagmire that threatens to keep the show off the air indefinitely. In its first five seasons on the Bravo cable channel, “Project Runway” increased its average audience to 4 million viewers an episode from 1 million an episode, making the most recent season its biggest ever.
But while producers of the show have already shot the design competitions that will make up most of the series’s sixth season, those new episodes are unlikely to see the light of day for several months, according to people involved in the case.
“From what I know about courts, it could be well into the early spring before anything is decided,” said one lawyer involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid further inflaming passions among the opposing parties.Barring an out-of-court settlement — and insiders say there are no such negotiations taking place — “Project Runway” seems unlikely to be back on the air for months at best.
The delay is the result of the continuing legal dispute between the Weinstein Company, which produces the series, and NBC Universal, the parent of Bravo. Early this year the Weinstein Company sold the rights to the series to Lifetime Networks for five years for what it says was some $200 million.
NBC Universal sued, saying it had a right of first refusal to keep the show on one of its channels. In September a New York State judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing Lifetime from promoting or broadcasting the series.
The case had been designated for a fast-track appeal in the New York courts, but last month Lifetime succeeded in moving the case from state to federal court, claiming that its copyright claims to the series made the dispute a federal matter. A federal judge in Manhattan is now in the process of deciding whether to uphold or overturn the state judge’s injunction or whether to return the case to the state level.
A Lifetime spokeswoman said the company “remains optimistic that when the dust settles, ‘Project Runway’ will be on Lifetime.” An NBC Universal spokeswoman, meanwhile, said that Lifetime’s effort to keep the case in federal court is “part of a ploy to shop for a different forum” after the state court ruled against it.
Bravo is all but certain to have lost “Project Runway.” According to court papers, Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal, acknowledged Mr. Weinstein’s desire to take the series elsewhere but continued to negotiate, saying he wanted the series for another NBC Universal property, perhaps including the NBC network. But there is also a chance that Bravo will beat “Project Runway” to the small screen with a competing show.
Last week Bravo completed a four-city casting tour for a new series tentatively titled “The Fashion Show,” whose winner will be chosen by viewers rather than a panel of fashion experts, as it is on “Project Runway.” Bravo also is developing another similarly themed series, tentatively titled “Celebrity Sew-Off.”
In May, after the Weinstein sale of the series to Lifetime, NBC signed a long-term deal with the production company Magical Elves, which oversaw production of the first five seasons of “Project Runway” for Bravo and which produces other Bravo reality-competition shows, including “Top Chef.”
As a result of that deal, the sixth season of “Project Runway” was produced by Bunim-Murray Productions, which has overseen “The Real World” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” among other reality series.
The season finale of “Project Runway” typically takes place during New York Fashion Week, the twice-yearly series of runway shows in Bryant Park in Manhattan. The next round of those shows is scheduled for February, and a person involved in the production said that the producers of “Project Runway” were planning to shoot the finale at that time. Because each season of the series stretches out over 14 weeks, episodes of the new season could be broadcast before the final competition takes place.
NBC Universal’s competing series in development has led the Weinstein Company to assert that NBC Universal is illegally using the state court injunction as both a shield and a sword, delaying the premiere of a new season of “Project Runway” while it prepares its own fashion face-off.
If anything, the case makes clear that television, like much of what goes on in Hollywood, is a business built on relationships. And when those relationships go sour, all bets are off.
According to court papers, the relationship had grown particularly bitter between Mr. Weinstein and Lauren Zalaznick, the president of Bravo. New York State Judge Richard B. Lowe III, who issued the injunction, wrote in his decision that “Weinstein had a particular dislike for Lauren Zalaznick, the head of Bravo, whom he claimed made day-to-day production of ‘Project Runway’ difficult” by, among other things, reportedly interfering with the Weinstein Company’s efforts to secure product-integration advertisers for the series. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Zalaznick declined to comment.
Mr. Zucker’s relationship with Mr. Weinstein is also the subject of commentary in the court papers. At a meeting in January 2007 between the two, Mr. Weinstein told Mr. Zucker: “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.”
At least, that is the account according to NBC’s complaint, filed in April. When the Weinstein Company filed its reply to the lawsuit last month, it claimed that Mr. Weinstein told Mr. Zucker that a person “has about 15 friends in the business world” and that he considered Mr. Zucker to be “one of those friends.” The company denied, however, that Mr. Weinstein promised not to embarrass anyone.