'Runway' Gets Away From Bravo

4/12/2008 2:00 AM Eastern

Lifetime expects to strut with style later this year, bringing the highly popular fashion reality show Project Runway to its largely female audience, but NBC Universal-owned Bravo isn't ready to step off the catwalk just yet.

The producer of Project Runway, The Weinstein Co., has until April 27 to answer NBC Universal's lawsuit to void the deal with Lifetime, filed last Monday in New York State Supreme Court. In the suit, the programmer alleges Weinstein did not honor NBC Universal's and Bravo's right of first refusal before signing a deal with any other company for new seasons of the show.

Weinstein has signed a reported five-year, $150 million distribution deal with Lifetime for distribution of Project Runway.

Whether NBC Universal will be successful in reeling in Runway is unclear. What is certain is that losing the popular series would be a substantial blow to Bravo. The Heidi Klum-hosted show is its most-watched program, averaging a series record 3.8 million viewers during its recently concluded fourth season.

That's well above the 2.4 million viewers garnered for the network's second most popular show, cooking reality show Top Chef.

“This really is a signature show for Bravo … its loss would be like the biggest department store closing in your mall,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

Further, Bravo has relied on original and repeat Project Runway episodes to fill its programming lineup. The show has represented 10% each of Bravo's total day and primetime lineup from January 2007 through April, according to Nielsen Media Research figures.

Heavy airings of the show were one of the The Weinstein Co.'s biggest complaints about its relationship with Bravo, according to executives close to both parties. Another was price: At a reported $600,000 an episode, executives close to Weinstein Co. said the company believed the franchise was worth more.

With the new deal, Lifetime is reportedly paying nearly $1 million an installment for each 14-episode season, beginning in November 2008. It's unclear how many seasons of Project Runway Lifetime is expected to produce during the life of the deal.

In addition, Lifetime will air a package of Weinstein-produced movies including such titles as The Nancy Diaries and The Great Debaters. Not clear is whether Lifetime will have the basic-cable premiere window for all of the movies.

Bravo is currently in production on its fifth season of Project Runway, but it has yet to announce a launch date.

The lawsuit claims that during a Jan. 15, 2007, meeting, Weinstein co-owner Harvey Weinstein gave NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker his word that NBC Universal would have the right of first refusal if Weinstein found an interested party for Project Runway beyond its fifth season. In return, NBC would grant Weinstein the opportunity to market and promote Project Runway on another channel a day after the end of Bravo's fifth season coverage if NBCU refused to match the new Runway deal.

Three days later that agreement was again secured in e-mails passed between NBC Universal and Weinstein's agent Jim Wiatt of the William Morris Agency, according to the suit.

While such an informal contract might hold up in court, Glenn Litwak, senior partner of entertainment-law firm Litwak and Havkin in Los Angeles, said it's highly unusual that both parties did not sign a formal contract.

“All contracts are enforceable, even an oral right of first refusal could be enforceable, but it's so much easier to prove when it's in writing,” said Litwak.

For Lifetime's part, it's ecstatic to have the Runway franchise to help boost its struggling ratings. In first-quarter 2008 the network averaged 1.4 million viewers in primetime, down 9% from the 1.5 million for the same period last year.

Lifetime Entertainment Services president Andrea Wong said Project Runway fits perfectly with Lifetime's efforts to deliver original content primarily aimed at women. Wong would not comment on the Bravo lawsuit, but told Multichannel News the network has a signed agreement with Weinstein for distribution of the series.

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