The creator of the hit CBS drama NCIS is suing the broadcaster for breach of contract, alleging that the network bilked him out of “the first pass” rights he had to any NCIS spin-off shows. Donald P. Bellisario, the screenwriter who also created JAG and Magnum P.I. for CBS (and Quantum Leap for NBC) filed suit in California State Court in Los Angeles earlier today.
“[The] contracts [grant] Bellasario a right of ‘first opportunity’ to participate creatively and economically in the development of such programs. Pursuant to the first opportunity provisions of Plaintiff’s 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,” Bellisario's attorneys claim in the complaint.
It is common knowledge in the broadcast world that writers do not own the rights to their shows – but Bellisario isn’t making a copyright claim. Instead, he’s arguing that CBS has reneged on an obligation specifically written into his contract that gives him first pass over any spin-off material the network might want to commission. This in spite of the fact that Bellisario was fired from CBS in 2007 after a dispute with executives and the star of the show.
Bellisario has not yet commented publicly on the suit, but one of his lawyers, Ron Nessim, issued this statement earlier today: “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. 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.”
Although CBS hasn't responded in court to the suit, the network did take the relatively unusual step of issuing a colorful and fairly pointed statement today—paving the way for what promises to be a bitter battle: “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."