''NYPD Blue'''s producer brings a landmark lawsuit
Steven Bochco takes 20th Century Fox to court over millions lost in syndication
There won’t be any bleeding corpses or bare butts — at least we don’t think so — but on April 9 a Los Angeles courtroom will be the setting for one of the boldest productions of Steven Bochco’s career. That’s when the ”NYPD Blue” producer will be making his case against 20th Century Fox, in the latest in a recent string of disputes over a controversial network television practice called ”vertical integration.”
Bochco’s suit charges that Fox cheated him out of millions of dollars by selling ”Blue” reruns at below market value to its affiliated cable channel, FX (both 20th Century Fox and FX are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). The suit maintains that, in an effort to increase ”synergy” (translation: make more dough), media conglomerates are selling product made at one of their studios to a sister network at bargain basement rates,increasing their own profits while seriously reducing those of any other profit participants (like producers and actors).
Bochco believes ”Blue” could have fetched as much as $700,000 an episode if non- Fox stations were allowed to compete in a more open marketplace. (Six months after the ”Blue” sale, in May 1995, Warner Bros. unloaded ”ER” to TNT for a then record license fee of $800,000.) Instead, ”Blue” sold to FX for $400,000 a pop. Although Bochco isn’t the first to file a ”self dealing” suit (David Duchovny sued Fox over ”The X-Files” syndication; the creators of ”Home Improvement” did the same to Disney), he’s the first not to settle out of court.
Bochco’s lawyer, Brian Lysaght, insists his client isn’t trying to make a political statement by going to trial. But ”to those familiar with the industry, testimony [will reveal] that vertically integrated companies have a tremendous incentive to self deal and a tremendous incentive to lie to profit participants,” says Lysaght, who brought a similar suit against 20th Century Fox’s in 1997, over the film ”White Men Can’t Jump.” The case ended in a $9.8 million verdict against Fox.
Stanton L. Stein, the attorney who represented Duchovny, is often credited (or blamed) for pioneering suits like Bochco’s. He believes they are about rectifying an unfair shift in the balance of power. ”These people agreed to be profit participants [thereby retaining an ownership interest in the show] under one set of rules, then the rules changed in the middle,” he says. ”It’s like finding out your broker is selling to his brother instead of to an independent third party. If he’s selling to an independent, he’s more motivated to get the maximum amount.”