Nellie Andreeva

UPDATE 12 PM: CBS TV Studios just issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit, “Don Bellisario has no rights to what he is claiming in this suit. The contract is clear, the facts are undeniable and the courts won’t need Naval intelligence to conclude that the case has no merit. We continue to honor all of our obligations to Mr. Bellisario under the actual agreement.”

EXCLUSIVE 10:40 AM: A 20-year successful partnership between a top TV producer and a major studio may end up in court. This morning, JAG and NCIS creator Don Bellisario is filing a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the series’ producer CBS TV Studios over offshoot NCIS: Los Angeles. The complaint, which you can read here, is being filed at Los Angeles Superior Court by Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg.

Bellisario, who was let go from NCIS in 2007 after star Mark Harmon threatened to quit the show, has not been involved in the successful spinoff series which was developed the following year and launched in fall 2009 and has not received a penny from it. The filing aims to rectify that, claiming that under Bellisario’s contracts with CBS TV Studios and its predecessors, Bellisario had a right of “first opportunity” “to participate creatively in economically in the development” of any “new spinoffs, sequels or remakes” of any series he had created for the studio as long as he worked on the original series for the first 2 seasons. The suit claims that CBS denied Bellisario that right as he was never offered  to  create or be part of NCIS: LA, which was written by Shane Brennan, former No.2 to Bellisario on NCIS who took over the hit series after Bellisario’s ouster at the end of Season 4. “Pursuant to the first opportunity provisions of Plaintiffs’ contracts with CBS, CBS is contractually obligated to compensate Bellisario for NCIS:LA, including a percentage of its profits as well as a certain fixed compensation,” the suit says.

The amount of damages sought is not specified in the complaint but NCIS: LA is estimated to generate more than a billion dollar in revenue for the studio over its run between network license fee, the lucrative off-network syndication deal with USA, which pays $2.3 million per episode for at least 10 seasons, the approximately $1.5 million per episode that international sales bring as well as auxiliary revenues. That means that the compensation, which the complaint claims Bellisario is entitled to, could reach $150 million – $200 million.

Bellisario’s first hit for CBS was the 1980s Magnum P.I., followed by JAG and its spinoff NCIS. “After more than 25 years of creating groundbreaking hit drama series for CBS, including the incredibly successful JAG/NCIS military justice franchise, CBS failed to offer Don Bellisario the opportunity to write or executive produce NCIS:LA, the third installment in the franchise he created,” said Bellisario’s attorney Ron Nessim. “In doing so, CBS breached its contractual obligations to Mr. Bellisario. After unsuccessfully trying to resolve the issue informally with CBS, Mr. Bellisario was compelled to seek resolution in the court system.”

The complaint sheds light on the studio’s arguments for denying Bellisario’s requests for compensation so far. “CBS’ refusal to compensate Bellisario for NCIS:LA is premised upon an unreasonably narrow interpretation of the “first opportunity” provisions of the contracts in question,” the lawsuit says. Such “first opportunity” provisions exist in all of Bellisario’s deals with CBS Studios, including the most recent one signed in 2006, giving him the right to create new series related to the ones he originally conceived. The definition of what type new series are covered under the terms of the deal evolved over time (the first  deal in 1992, for instance, excludes so-called “planted” spinoffs). The most recent 2006 deal specifies the projects Bellisario is entitled to get first dibs creating as “a generic spinoff (i.e., a new pilot and/or series in which a continuing central character is one who originally appeared in the pilot on which the original series was directly based), television sequel, prequel or remake or television movie or miniseries based upon such series.” Even if Bellisario does not take part in such new series, he is still entitled to sizable passive payments for them.

While not spelling out exactly what CBS Studios’ objections are, the complaint suggests that the studio doesn’t consider NCIS: LA a spin-off or sequel as stipulated in Bellisario’s deals. “Contrary to CBS’s interpretation, Bellisario has the contractual right to participate in and be compensated for NCIS:LA because it is, among other things, both a sequel to and a spinoff of JAG and NCIS within the meaning of the “first opportunity” rights provisions of Plaintiffs’ contracts with CBS,” the suit says.

NCIS and NCIS: LA, which is commonly referred to as an NCIS spinoff, do share several characters, including that of of the Director of NCIS. They also share the NCIS title, have the same general setting (or “inhabit the same fictional universe” per the complaint), the NCIS Agency, and both mix drama with banter among the members of the team. The complaint claims that CBS’ decision to schedule NCIS: LA after NCIS further underlines the two series’ close affiliation and that NCIS: LA landed its blockbuster off-network deal only 7 episodes into its run because of its close association with the mothership series. The suits also features quotes from Brennan and NCIS: LA stars LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell about the great similarities between the two series.

The legal dispute raises the question about what exactly constitutes a TV series spinoff  as that term has evolved from the old days of traditional offshoots like Frasier. Like Law & Order and CSI, NCIS: LA is more of a franchise spinoff that carries the structure, the look and the feel of the original, something the complaint underscores a number of times.

TV Editor Nellie Andreeva - tip her here.