Lifetime Snags 'Project Runway'

NBC Universal Files Lawsuit to Stop Switch From Bravo

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Get ready for a catfight over the catwalk. Lifetime has acquired the exclusive rights to Bravo's "Project Runway" beginning with the reality show's sixth season in November 2008. The five-year deal was negotiated by Lifetime Networks' president-CEO, Andrea Wong, and Weinstein Co.'s Co-Chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein. But with the deal comes controversy.
The hosts of 'Project Runway,' Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum
The hosts of 'Project Runway,' Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum Credit: Barbara Nitke

According to a person familiar with the negotiation process, Bravo's parent company, NBC Universal, had an opportunity to provide a competitive bid to Lifetime's offer and didn't.

Today, NBC filed a lawsuit against Weinstein Co., the show's owners, in the New York State Supreme Court to prevent the series from switching hands. Well-known media lawyer David Boies is serving as counsel to the Weinsteins and said of the suit in a statement, "We believe that this lawsuit is 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."

Right of first refusal at issue
NBC said in a statement of the "Runway" lawsuit: "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 Company unfortunately has refused to honor. 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."

In an interview, Ms. Wong said conversations with the Weinsteins began in January "just about a bunch of opportunities to work together on all different forms of programming. When this came up, we jumped at the chance to make a deal with them."

Ms. Wong added that the show is the top-rated reality series for women, so Lifetime's audience was a perfect fit for her to align it with its femme-friendly programming. "The great news is it really carves out a destination for the best reality programming."

Ms. Wong had earlier issued a statement saying, "'Project Runway' is one of the best TV programs on the air today on broadcast or cable. I am a huge fan. All my friends are huge fans. Having water cooler movies, dramas and reality shows like 'Project Runway' is what Lifetime Television is all about. We welcome The Weinstein Company, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn to the Lifetime family for many walks down the runway to come."

Upfront draws near
The network will be giving its upfront presentation to advertisers over the next two months and will present to the press April 14 in New York.

The loss of "Runway" is a huge blow to Bravo, which has used the show to score major ratings and add to its overall brand identity in recent years. This year's fourth season averaged a 3.8 live-plus-seven-day rating among women 18 to 49, while the March 5 finale scored a 6.1 rating across the same demo on live-plus-seven viewing. Moreover, Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick was able to leverage the show's success and formula to spin off other competition-based series like "Top Chef" and "Make Me A Supermodel" and sell advertisers on its unique integration formula.

NBCU's recent acquisition of Oxygen also would have created a natural cross-promotion platform to further extend the reach of "Runway" to young women. Ms. Zalaznick's new role at NBCU is designed to effectively make her the head of women's entertainment at the company, leveraging cross-platform opportunities across Bravo, Oxygen and iVillage. Without the flagship "Runway" brand, such cross-network programming may be harder to scale.

Changing outfits
The "Runway" assets are crucial for Lifetime, a network that is currently trying to position itself as a broader destination for women's entertainment beyond its signature made-for-TV movies, which remain its bread and butter. But after the surprise success of last summer's "Army Wives," which became the highest-rated original series in the network's 23 years, the race to align similar event programming with its new tentpole series became rampant.

After experimenting with other high-concept scripted fare (dramas "Side Order of Life" and "State of Mind" both failed to attract the buzz and ratings of their Sunday-night "Wives" counterpart), the network has had its most modest success as of late with reality shows like "How to Look Good Naked" and "Your Mama Don't Dance."

Online, Lifetime has recently undergone a major revamp with its new site MyLifetime.com, which has a new ad-sales partnership with Glam Media. Having the web-savvy audience of "Runway" could bring even more active users to a user base that reached 2.3 million unique visitors in October 2007. Visits to Bravo's digital properties doubled in first quarter 2008 vs. first quarter 2007 to 3.4 million uniques, due largely to the blog activity surrounding "Runway."

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