Thus Spake the Lawyers

Mike FriedmanThe one that got away?

The truth is there have been a great many of them. So many that as I recall them now, it feels like it’s a miracle I got any work at all. But one stands out from the rest, I think. The one about the chain of dinner theaters, which will remain nameless, and the shortsightedness of the legal profession.

About fifteen years ago, a smart, aspiring TV producer with roots in the sports broadcasting world asked me to partner up with him. You see, he had a business relationship with this chain of dinner theaters (yeah, you’ve probably guessed who they are by now) and he had a vision that this chain could be the basis for a successful reality show.

I didn’t want to write for a reality show, I told him. I wanted to do an hour-long ensemble drama based on the broadly sketched characters in the dinner theater. He liked the idea. He pitched it to the management of the chain, who liked it as well.

I wrote a script and surrounded it with a proposal, and gave it to my partner (who is still a friend—the only lasting benefit of the whole shebang). He in turn peddled it at meeting after meeting, deftly unveiling its merits for the benefit of one New York network exec after another.

And one of them bought it.

That’s right. In fact, that exec was going to make our show the first of several dramas his network planned to roll out. We rejoiced. We were going to produce a TV show.

mt picOf course, it wasn’t just our proposal that had wowed the network. It was the success of the dinner theaters, which nationally drew more people in a given year than did the New York Yankees. Still, it was a show, right?

Then we got a call from the management of the chain. Their lawyers had chimed in. “You’ve got a successful dinner-theater business going,” said the lawyers. “Why blur the picture by tying it to a TV show. What if somebody falls off a horse and sues you? You need this headache?”

Never mind that a TV show would only vault the chain to a new level of success. The lawyers prevailed. The chain backed out. And without their immense audience, we had no leverage with the network.

In other words, we were…cooked. Yes, that’s the word we’ll use. Cooked.

A few weeks later, I’m reading Inside Star Trek, a terrific book that I heartily recommend if you haven’t read it already. In the book, Herb Solow, the head of TV production at Desilu in the early sixties, had just come back from New York with orders for two offbeat, hour-long dramas. One was Mission: Impossible, which he had sold to CBS. The other was going to NBC. It was called Star Trek.

Lucy and Desi were pleased. Then their lawyers chimed in. “You’ve got a successful half-hour sitcom business going,” said the lawyers. “Why blur the picture by bringing in hour-long dramas? What if somebody falls off a spaceship and sues you? You need this headache?”

Fortunately, Lucy and Desi overruled their lawyers and produced the hour-long shows anyway, and the rest is history. Their law firm, by the way? The same one that advised the guys at the dinner-theater chain.

The same damn one

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