Paxson hit with lawsuit over `Ponderosa’

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It’s high noon on the production of Pax TV’s “Ponderosa,” whose premiere last month was the highest-rated original series debut ever on the 2-year-old broadcast network.
Associated Television International, formerly a co-production partner in “Ponderosa,” filed a lawsuit Sept. 21 in Los Angeles Superior Court charging Paxson Productions and Paxson Entertainment with breach of contract, fraud and four other causes of action.
The suit broadly claims that Pax reneged on covering deficits and budget overruns it had allegedly promised to Associated, in addition to making “misrepresentations” on the creative direction of the “Bonanza” prequel. “Bonanza” originally aired on NBC from 1959 to 1973.
Under terms of the written agreement, Associated said that in exchange for being granted domestic and international syndication rights to “Ponderosa” (to take effect 14 months after its debut on Pax), it agreed to pay up to $315,000 per episode in production costs on a series budgeted at $665,173 per episode. Associated, represented in the filing by attorney William Walker, also claimed that Pax agreed to pay a license fee of $350,000 per episode into the production account.
However, the suit alleges that Jeff Sagansky, president of Pax TV, made oral representations during negotiations in March and April 2001 to Associated President David McKenzie suggesting that the company would not have to pay more than $200,000 in actual cash fees per episode. Associated estimated it has covered as much as $400,000 per episode in deficit costs due to budget overruns on the series.
All told, Associated claims it had put $1.3 million into the production of “Ponderosa” before attorneys informed the network on Sept. 20 of its plans to sue and stop payments.
The suit is seeking no less than $1.5 million in compensatory damages (in addition to other potentially awarded punitive damages in a jury trial), which Mr. Walker later told EM could be amended to more than that figure upon discovery of other future production costs. Mr. Walker, who works for the Los Angeles firm Coudert Brothers, deferred all other comment to the filing itself and declined to specify the number of episodes Associated funded out of the initial 13-episode order from Pax.
More than the financial issues involved, fissures in the relationship appeared to originate over creative control and Associated’s claimed lead role in “Ponderosa’s” production. According to the suit, Mr. Sagansky had made oral commitments to Mr. McKenzie and ATI Chairman Paul Sharratt during negotiations in April 2001 giving Associated “creative control” over the “Ponderosa” project. At that time, Mr. Sagansky reportedly informed them that “Bonanza” creator David Dortort, along with his son, Fred Dortort, had already written a story treatment that would be used to create and shape the “Ponderosa” spinoff.
Shortly after, however, the suit said, Associated Television representatives and David Dortort reviewed the pilot script, authored by Beth Sullivan, finding that “it was not consistent with the facts and characters laid out over the history of the original `Bonanza’ series.” The filing said the pilot script for “Ponderosa” had to do with the “codes” of the Old West and was closer to “reflecting the values and attitudes of modern-day United States.”
Associated Television executives claimed that Pax’s “fraudulent misrepresentation” over the creative direction of “Ponderosa” undercut the company’s ability to sell the show to other international investors and broadcast buyers. Thus, it pulled out of the project, claiming, “ATI has this money and has nothing usable to license in marketplaces from which it was to recoup its investment” in the series, according to the suit.
A spokeswoman for Pax TV said the Paxson Communications-owned network does not comment on litigation. Premiering on Sept. 9, “Ponderosa’s” two-hour opener scored a 2.4 Nielsen Media Research rating in households and registered 3.9 million total viewers-both records for Pax, which is one-third-owned by NBC.