'Project’ of a Lifetime

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The value of a single hit show to a cable network is something that’s been debated forever. In an excellent exploration of the subject by our Linda Moss in 2004, Bravo’s then-vice president of strategic programming, Dan Harrison, talked about Queer Eye for a Straight Guy’s impact on the network’s repositioning under NBC (which bought the former arts channel from Cablevision).

But Harrison acknowledged then a single hit isn’t what really matters: “Our challenge is to take Queer Eye and build a schedule that builds the second hit and the third hit, and to grow shows so we aren’t just dependent on the popularity of one show, because shows go in and out of favor.”

The lack of a second hit and a third hit lie behind the multimillion-dollar tug of war over Bravo’s No. 1 show these days, Project Runway.

I put Bravo and Lifetime in that category, although Bravo can make a better case for having a strong second show, Top Chef. Still, the dropoff there is steep: About 3.8 million average viewers for a new Runway, versus 2.4 million for Chef (which, a Scripps executive told me last week, most people think is on Food Network). These numbers come courtesy of Disney-ABC Cable research, from January 2007 until April 2008.

Lifetime has a bona fide top show: Army Wives. Premieres averaged about 3.3 million viewers in the same period. The second-best show? State of Mind, about 2 million. A show Lifetime canceled.

No wonder Lifetime chief Andrea Wong jumped at the chance to host the next five seasons of Project Runway, after its five cycles on Bravo.

A significant raise over what’s been reported as about $600,000 per episode for Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn and their cadre of competing designers? Absolutely a no-brainer. Taking on a bunch of available movies (the best of which apparently are The Great Debaters and The Nanny Diaries) from Runway producer The Weinstein Cos.? Also no problem. Lifetime loves movies, and even has a secondary movie network.

A $150 million total commitment, as has been reported? Apparently Lifetime can afford it, so why not.

Whether Lifetime will end up with the pink slip to Project Runway remains to be seen. Lawyers, courts and accountants will end up sorting that one out.

So much for them to sift through:

  • Handshake agreements that did or didn’t happen.
  • E-mails that do or don’t fully support NBCU’s understanding of a “right of first refusal to acquire rights to additional cycles of the program.”
  • A lawsuit that might or might not have precipitated the Weinstein Cos. announcement last week of the deal it agreed to in February with Lifetime.
  • Harvey Weinstein’s purported declaration that NBCU chief Jeff Zucker was in his Fave Five circle of friends, for life. Did he or didn’t he say it, and did he mean it? (Circle of Friends, by the way, was not a Weinstein film.)

Again, Lifetime has lawyers and, if it and they saw any risk, they thought it was a reasonable gamble to buy an established hit that skews toward affluent female viewers, and a coveted younger audience, as well.

Did Zucker and his crew, including Bravo chief Lauren Zalaznick, play hardball with Weinstein and get burned, relying on first-refusal rights that maybe can’t be enforced? Something else for wiser heads to sort out, presumably with more information than is contained in the first salvo from NBCU lawyers, the lawsuit filed in a state court in New York City.

The complaint does acknowledge that in late 2006, “certain disputes arose between the parties regarding the scope of plaintiffs’ exclusivity rights and rights of first refusal.” It might be reasonable to assume there were other disputes between Weinstein and Bravo and NBC executives since Project Runway launched in 2004.

Disney research also indicates Runway airings account for fully 10% of Bravo’s schedule over the 16-month measured period — 10% of total-day show airings and 10% of primetime airings. Weinstein Cos. might see that as running a thoroughbred a tad too hard.

Runway also was off Bravo’s schedule for 13 months at one stretch: Cycle Three ended Oct. 18, 2006, and Cycle Four began Nov. 14, 2007, the lawsuit notes. Bravo might have hoped during that time to develop a crucial second (or, after Top Chef, third) hit and gain leverage with Weinstein. Unsuccessfully.

How much do these things matter? Maybe not much. Maybe a lot.

Probably not as much, though, as the value of a bona fide second or third hit show.

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