The venerable collaboration between television hit-maker Donald P. Bellisario and CBS TV Studios may be over after Bellisario filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit regarding his lack of involvement in, and subsequent compensation for, NCIS: Los Angeles.
According to the lawsuit, NCIS: Los Angeles, the offshoot of Bellisario’s creation, NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service, falls under his contract with CBS TV Studios, which stipulates the creator has the first rights to any sequels or spin-offs and that he would be afforded the opportunity “to participate creatively and economically in the creation of such programs.”
Bellisario is making the case that since he first created JAG, which would later spawn NCIS, he would have to be considered the defacto creator of NCIS: Los Angeles because “the show scrupulously replicates that which has made NCIS so popular and it does so with near clone-like fidelity to Bellisario’s recipe.”
The suit goes on to say:
“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.”
However, stemming from a 2007 dispute with series star Mark Harmon in which the actor threatened to leave NCIS due to what he called Bellisario’s “chaotic management style,” the producer let go of his duties on NCIS and was never consulted in the creation of NCIS: Los Angeles.
Moreover, CBS has responded to the lawsuit by stating:
"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.”
Now in its second season, NCIS: Los Angeles has been considered a success for CBS. While it does not enjoy the incredible ratings of its predecessor, the drama has managed to capture a solid and consistent audience. But what the lawsuit is really looking at is the financial potential the series has. For example: cable network USA just struck a syndication deal with CBS TV Studios for a staggering $2.3 million dollars per episode for a minimum of 10 seasons. With that kind of revenue being generated by the new program, it is easy to see why Bellisario wants a piece of the action.
Beyond JAG and NCIS, Bellisario is famous for creating shows like Magnum P.I., Airwolf and the fan-favorite Quantum Leap starring Scott Bakula. Bellisario also worked as writer and producer on the original Battlestar Galactica series in the late 1970s.
Spin-offs have long been a staple of television, but for the better part of the past decade they certainly seem well suited toward the more popular police procedurals. Programs like CSI, Law & Order and Criminal Minds have all had second chances at grabbing the audience’s attention, but with varying degrees of success.
Bellisario’s lawsuit regarding NCIS: Los Angeles could go a long way in determining how a spin-off is actually defined. It may serve to help, or hinder future creators depending on the suit’s outcome.
NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles air back-to-back on CBS Tuesdays starting @8pm.