Written by Associated Press Writer Sue Manning
LOS ANGELES A federal jury on Wednesday awarded $269.2 million in damages to the creators of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” because they didn’t get their fair share of profits from the popular Walt Disney Co. television game show.
The jury of five women and four men returned a unanimous verdict agreeing with a British TV production company, the London-based Celador International, which accused Walt Disney of using creative accounting to hide profits.
The trial was held before Judge Virginia Phillips in U.S. District Court in Riverside, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
“We believe this verdict is fundamentally wrong and will aggressively seek to have it reversed,” Disney said in a statement. Disney attorneys did not return calls for additional comment.
Lead Celador attorney Roman Silberfeld said the verdict form given to jurors was 18 pages long and included 40 or 50 questions, and “every one came out in Celador’s favor, 9-0 on every question.”
The jury awarded $260 million in license fees and $9.2 million for merchandising claims, which were made based on $70 million in sales of a home edition of the game show.
Celador had asked for a minimum of $202 million and a maximum of $395 million, Silberfeld said.
“At a time when (Disney-owned) ABC was ranked last among the networks and desperately needed a hit, it entered into an agreement with Celador to put ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ on the air and share the profits of success if there was success with Celador 50-50. Every witness testified that was the deal,” Silberfeld said.
During four weeks of testimony, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger took the stand and e-mails from former Disney boss Michael Eisner about his enthusiasm for the show were admitted into evidence.
The show, which was first hosted by Regis Philbin, became very successful for ABC in 1999 and 2000, ranking in the top 10 shows across the country at least four times that season, Silberfeld said.
It put the network in first place, allowing them to charge more in ad revenues, he said, but “ABC and a series of affiliated companies entered into a series of agreements that were solely intended to show ‘Millionaire’ never showed a profit.”
“If you look at an accounting statement today, after 10 years on the air, it says it has lost money every year and is $75 million in the red,” the attorney said.
Silberfeld said he expected post-trial maneuvers and that an appeal would take a couple of years.
The show was on the air from August 1999 to May 2002. It came back in syndication in fall 2002 and has been on the air since.
Celador sought profits from the show from August of 1999 through the day the original complaint was filed in May 2004, Silberfeld said. An auditing of books and records is continuing, he added.