'Best of the 20th Century' leads Md. man to file suit Creator of survey says he was forced out of Fox Broadcasting deal

Public opinion

July 11, 1998|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

A Westminster man who struck a deal with Fox Broadcasting Co. to market a "Best of the 20th Century" national survey is suing Fox, its parent company and an Atlanta marketing firm for $600 million, claiming that he was forced out of the project.

In 1994, Benjamin H. Higgs developed the idea for a national survey that would allow people to choose the best of the century in hundreds of categories, including sports, movies, music and Supreme Court justices.

Fox's parent company, News Corp., agreed in December to provide the 900-prefix numbers for telephone voting, inserts in newspapers and a Web site for "The Best of the 20th Century: The Official National Survey."

Fox also committed itself to airing 30- and 60-second "best of" vignettes and to air a two-hour special next year.

In return, Higgs was supposed to receive half of the profit from everything except the television vignettes and a prime-time special Fox was supposed to produce, he said.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Susan McWhorter and Mark Driscoll, principals of the Atlanta marketing firm Higgs hired to help sell the idea to News Corp., seized control of Higgs' company, Best20.

In March, Higgs left the company, which he had founded with three partners, after McWhorter and Driscoll reduced his involvement, according to the lawsuit.

Higgs said he sold his 13 percent stake in the company, taking a loss.

He would not disclose financial details.

Fox has until Aug. 7 to respond to the lawsuit, said Randall Kender, Fox's senior vice president of legal affairs in Beverly Hills, Calif.

After Higgs left, the company's deal with Fox fizzled. Fox ended its involvement in the project, Kender said.

"Because of the litigation, I cannot say why we elected not to proceed," he said.

In a written statement about Higgs' lawsuit, Fox said, "We do not believe there is any merit to the lawsuit. We will vigorously defend against these allegations and are confident we will prevail."

McWhorter and Driscoll are also no longer involved with Best20, which is being run by its board of directors and shareholders, said the company's attorney, Diane Leigh Davison.She would not comment on where the national survey project stands.

Any money awarded to him in court might be the only money Higgs sees from the project.

"Our forecast of revenue from this project was well over $1 billion," Higgs said. "So this leaves everybody involved with it standing around wondering what happened."

Since leaving the Best20 Group, Higgs said, he has been working on several other marketing projects.

"I still have tremendous respect for Rupert Murdoch," the chairman of News Corp., Higgs said. "I read his biography twice. He built a huge publishing empire and realized the American dream, but he squashed my American dream.

"I don't understand why that happened, and the only way to sort it out is to take it to court."

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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