Filmmaker Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee is suing Viacom over its plans to rename the TNN cable network “Spike TV.” Viacom’s channel would appeal to American males aged 18 to 34. The media giant envisions a testosterone-laced antidote to the Oxygen, Lifetime, and WE channels geared to women.
The accomplished motion-picture director and his attorney — none other than Johnnie “O. J.” Cochran — detect something far more nefarious: a plot by TNN and Viacom to capitalize on Lee’s name.
“It’s clear when you say ‘Spike,’ everybody knows who you are talking about,” Cochran told Manhattan supreme-court judge Walter Tolub on June 9. “They hope to get a boost in the ratings. They don’t have a right to misappropriate his name to do that.”
As Lee himself argued in his legal briefs: “The media description of this change of name, as well as comments made to me and my wife, confirmed what was obvious — that Spike TV referred to Spike Lee.”
Marvel for a moment at Lee’s Rushmore-sized ego. His vanity is almost as stunning as the fact that Judge Tolub agreed with Lee and issued a preliminary injunction, thus pressing the pause button on Viacom’s plans to unveil its project on June 16. A five-judge appellate panel on June 19 rejected Viacom’s motion that they hit the play button. This matter now remains on hold until an August 18 trial before Judge Tolub.
Spike Lee’s civil action is an Oscar-worthy example of the litigation culture that is consuming America like a $500-per-hour tumor.
Lee would have a case if TNN re-christened itself “The Spike Lee Channel.” That surely would involve trading on the 46-year-old director’s name with neither permission nor compensation. Likewise, as my friend Vance DeWitt observes, if Spike TV specialized in black cinema, Lee’s lawsuit would sparkle with merit.
Viacom already airs Spike TV’s programming, though still under the TNN banner, due to the injunction. It offers wrestling, reruns of the crime show CSI, and, soon, an animated series called Gary the Rat, in which Kelsey Grammer gives voice to a lawyer so eager to fatten himself that he becomes a rodent (what a stretch!). It also runs old episodes of Baywatch, a program primarily about the travails of white people on Southern California’s beaches. This setting is literally and thematically a continent away from the lives of largely-black New Yorkers portrayed in Lee’s movies such as Malcolm X, Mo Better Blues and Bamboozled. Even more galactically removed from Lee’s celluloid canvas are TNN’s cablecasts of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Spike Lee creates compelling, usually entertaining and always visually appealing work. Only a crack head would mistake his repertoire for Spike TV’s programming mix.
Moreover, if Lee can scuttle Viacom’s ambitions, why couldn’t Spike Jonze, the highly talented, Academy Award-nominated director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, join Lee’s suit as a co-plaintiff? The heirs of the late British comedian, Spike Milligan, might contact their barristers, too.
Too bad Lee never consulted one security officer I met Monday outside of Manhattan’s Supreme Court. As he told me: “I had a dog named Spike. He never complained.”
One spike who has complained is Spike Jones Jr., the son of Lindley A. “Spike” Jones, the Swing-era orchestra leader who interwove vivid sound effects with precise, frantically played big-band music. His light-hearted hits, as the Associated Press recalls, include “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “Don’t Hit Your Grandma with a Shovel.”
“The estate of Spike Jones continues to have an ongoing relationship with BMG Records, EMI Records and Warner Bros. Records,” Jones Jr. said in an affidavit filed Monday. “I find it frightening that a court would allow Spike Lee to appropriate and acquire an exclusive (and free) ownership interest in the name ‘Spike’ in the television and entertainment field, preventing others with at least as legitimate an interest in using the name from doing so.”
To fathom how far this case has devolved beyond farce, consider the expert opinion of Jacob Jacoby, a psychologist and consumer behavior professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business — where I earned my MBA. His 10-page, 23-item affidavit refutes a plaintiff’s filing in which Samuel Popkin, Ph.D. asserts that TV viewers would confuse Spike TV and Spike Lee.
“There is absolutely no scientific foundation whatsoever to support Dr. Popkin’s conjectures,” Jacoby states in the June 23 document. Jacoby charged Viacom’s lawyers approximately $4,700 at $650 per hour to prepare this professional evaluation.
That sum pales, however, beside Viacom’s losses to date. The Manhattan-based media giant says its prohibition from using advertising, logos and promotional materials developed before Spike TV’s postponed launch has cost its shareholders $17 million. If Lee ultimately prevails, Viacom’s entire $43 million rebranding investment for Spike TV will be — go ahead and sue me — spiked.
Of course, things could deteriorate. A Spike Lee victory could expose Viacom to fresh lawsuits. Actor Nick Nolte could demand a share of the ad revenue from Viacom’s Nick at Nite classic TV. Actress Valerie Harper and former Czech president Vaclav Havel could sue for damages. After all, when did VH-1 ever send either of them a royalty check?
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. also could be in trouble. What if the Fox News Channel actually is named after Michael J. Fox? Perhaps Mexican president Vicente Fox could join the actor in filing a grievance under NAFTA.
Judge Walter Tolub should do the right thing: Reject this monument to Spike Lee’s monomania and fine him and Johnnie Cochran $1 million each for wasting the people’s time with such breathtakingly infantile nonsense.
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.