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Those of us who grew up on episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy have no doubt about the popularity of the show. Equal parts hard science and zany voices, BNSG was the meat and potatoes of our after school diet. (Saved by the Bell was a gluttonous dessert.)
But according to a recent lawsuit, Nye himself may not have realized how financially successful his show was, and that might have been due to some fuzzy math on the part of the show's distributors. Nye is suing Walt Disney Company, Buena Vista Television, and a host of subsidiaries claiming they withheld profits from BNSG, to the tune of around $28 million.
Nye's brainchild children's science program ran from 1993 to 1998, but it was until a decade after the last show air that things got, financially speaking, a little weird. BNSG still airs in limited syndication, is a staple in classrooms, and about a third of its episodes are available on Netflix or Apple iTunes, meaning Nye is till entitled to a share of the profits from the show.
In 2008, Buena Vista sent Nye a check for $585,123 -- his share of the BNSG profits. But mere months later, it sent him a bill for $496,111 -- the amount he was allegedly overpaid due an accounting error. "The disturbing size of the supposed 'accounting error,'" Nye's lawsuit claims, "coupled with the seeming indifference of both [Buena Vista] and [Disney] left Mr. Nye suspicious of the veracity of the accounting statements he had been receiving ... over the years."
According to his lawsuit, the show's owners were entitled to 50 percent of the show's net profits, and Nye himself entitled to 16.5 percent of the total net profits. But it's hard to tell if you're getting your fair share you don't know what the total net profits amount to. Nye and his attorney repeatedly requested an audit of Disney and Buena Vista's book, but were denied access for years. At one point, Disney told Nye he "would have to wait in line for 3-4 years" before commencing with the audit.
Once the audit finally commenced, Disney allegedly failed to fully cooperate with document requests, either withholding documents, or saying it would produce documents and then not following through. Still, even with limited discovery materials, Nye's auditor estimates the companies owe him $28,051,695 in ill-gotten profits. Nye is suing for that amount, plus punitive damages based on the companies' false promises, breaches of contract and fiduciary duty, and accounting malfeasance.
The lesson, as always -- don't try to outsmart the smartest guy in the room.