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They Couldn't Make It Work
Patchwork of Claims and Counterclaims Keeps Latest 'Runway' Shelved

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

Season 6 of "Project Runway" will tape its New York Fashion Week finale tomorrow --

It will? But I've heard nothing!

Shhh. We'll get to that.

-- and we hypothesize several things will happen:

1) The "fragile" contestant will have a meltdown;

2) Someone will make bold but ultimately tragic use of a bizarre material, such as human hair or Twinkies;

3) The episode will liberally feature a word like "fierce," except that it won't actually be "fierce," because that's so Season 4 -- it will be a totally new catchphrase you have not yet heard of.

But what contestant? Which material? Why hair? If the schedule had gone according to plan, we would already know the answers to those questions, because we would have been watching the season since November. We would have been second-guessing Michael Kors (one of the show's judges), cultivating a love-hate relationship with whoever wound up being this season's Christian Siriano wannabe . . . (What do you think the new catchphrase is? Saucy? Cruel? That asymmetrical halter is so cruel.)

But none of that happened, because nary an episode of the contest for amateur fashion designers has aired, because the show is trapped in a juicy legal battle that has dragged on for nearly a year. The episode taping tomorrow will be cloaked in secrecy until -- well, even infinitely wise co-host/mentor Tim Gunn doesn't know. "I haven't a clue," Gunn says in a phone interview from New York. "I hate to disappoint you, but I haven't a clue."

Drama began back in April when Lifetime Networks announced that it had licensed rights to future cycles of the reality show -- currently on Bravo -- from the Weinstein Co., which produces "Runway." This was a huge coup: "Project Runway" is a flagship program for Bravo (4.8 million viewers tuned in for last season's finale) and the first reality show to win a prestigious Peabody Award. Lifetime paid a reported $200 million for the rights to five seasons, plus other non-"Runway" projects that came as part of a package deal.

According to Lifetime, the new season was expected to premiere in fall 2008. (We remember this. We remember thinking: Lifetime? Really? How long before the design challenges become: "Create a comfy, pre-menopausal pair of drawstring pants"?)

The very same day, NBC Universal, which owns Bravo, filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the Weinstein Co., claiming that it had been denied right of first refusal, that the show never should have been sold to Lifetime.

This is when the real-life story turned into its own reality show: Project Catty Moguls.

Wounded NBC Universal struck first. The lawsuit mentioned a Four Seasons lunch at which Harvey Weinstein allegedly promised not to sell "Runway" to another network. Supposedly, he reassured NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker by saying, "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." Along with this claim of BFF betrayal, NBC Universal also accused the Weinstein Co. of engaging in double-crossing and "sham negotiations."

Oooh.

But wait, the Weinstein Co. responded, addressing NBC Universal's claims. That Four Seasons lunch? Not as cozy as Zucker remembers: "Weinstein told Zucker that one has about 15 friends in the business world," the response read.

Oooh.

The Weinstein Co. then launched into its own allegations -- that NBC Universal had failed its promotional obligations by "purposefully revealing spoilers," that it had stolen "Runway's" format for "Top Chef," "Shear Genius" and other Bravo reality shows.

The Weinstein Co. also claimed that NBC Universal had been unwilling to pay a "competitive amount" for the non-"Runway" package deal projects that Lifetime later accepted.

The complaints went on and on, and all we could think was: Gentlemen! Why don't you hop into some couture gowns made entirely of repurposed car parts and battle this out on the catwalk!

Because at that point we were getting desperate. At that point we were realizing that, without "Project Runway's" inane challenges to discuss (professional lady wrestlers? Seriously?), we literally had nothing to talk about with most of our co-workers. At that point we saw we had built entire relationships with people upon doing nothing but yelling "MAKE IT WORK!" across the cafeteria.

Couldn't this all be a misunderstanding? we wondered. Maybe if Harvey admitted that Jeff was in his five after all. Maybe if Jeff apologized for claiming, as NBC Universal did in the suit, that the Weinstein Co. "has not been involved in any successful television programs beyond 'Project Runway.' "

By late October, Lifetime had entered the brawl. The network claimed copyright violation with its own lawsuit, then tried to get the case moved from New York state court to a federal one. That request was rejected in December.

Now the whole mess is waiting to be untangled in the New York State Supreme Court. A trial date has not been set. No one knows when -- or where -- the show will appear again.

This being a lawsuit, none of the parties involved are offering further details:

Lifetime: "We continue to look forward to this entire matter being resolved expeditiously and remain hopeful that, in the end, Lifetime will be home to 'Project Runway.' "

NBC Universal: Declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.

The Weinstein Co.: "For viewers at home, with some special planning we've done, the experience will be seamless."

The bad sewing pun does not amuse us.

And here's the maddening part. All along -- through the legalese and lawsuits -- "Project Runway" was continuing to tape. Looking for a fresh angle, the Weinstein Co. packed up the whole operation and moved it from New York to Los Angeles. Presumably, an assortment of new designers was chosen. Presumably, they were then dismissed one by one with a frosty "Auf wiedersehen." (But what if they weren't? What if co-host Heidi Klum started saying "Later, alligator" just to switch it up a little?)

In previous season finales, the finalists have skipped onto a Bryant Park runway during Fashion Week to proudly introduce their collections and talk about what "Project Runway" has meant to them. It was the pinnacle of their experience, and ours.

Tomorrow's fashion show will be completely anonymous to better protect the identities of the unknown contestants, who will hide out backstage.

"I can only imagine that they're disappointed," Gunn says.

Can't you tell us anything else, Tim?

"It's an absolutely fantastic season," he teases. "There are opportunities located [in L.A.] that we don't have in New York. Here we have the Hudson River, there they have the Pacific Ocean. . . . And nowhere has the red-carpet opportunities that L.A. has."

Ocean . . . red carpet . . . The first challenge must be Oscar dresses out of seaweed! Is that it?

"I can't wait for you to see the show," Gunn says, "and see what we have."

Staff researchers Meg Smith and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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