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It appears fashion is still a great source of entertainment.

Thursday will bring the much-delayed sixth season of “Project Runway,” which moves to Lifetime from Bravo after a grueling court battle (and subsequent settlement for an undisclosed amount) between The Weinstein Co. and NBC Universal. Not only is the show on a new network and broadcasting after an 10-month hiatus, but a two-hour special, “Project Runway All-Star Challenge,” and a spin-off, “Models of the Runway,” will also debut.

This story first appeared in the August 19, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But “Project Runway” is no longer the only show in town — and one of the key questions it faces is whether viewers will return to an old favorite on a new network or instead stick with the slew of competitors. From CW’s long-running “America’s Next Top Model,” to MTV’s “The Hills” to scripted programs such as “Gossip Girl” (where, face it, it’s as much about the clothes as the characters), television programs rooted in the fashion business continue to proliferate across the networks. But when will the saturation point be reached?

The networks clearly feel that’s a long way off. “The same way that sports is a passionate category for men, women look at style in the same way,” said Style Network president Salaam Coleman Smith. “Women are passionate about transformation, and about ideas for living a fun, fabulous life, to improve themselves, find a new lipstick and figure out a new haircut.”

Four days after “Runway” marks its return, rival Bravo on Aug. 24 will welcome back the second season of “The Rachel Zoe Project.” This fall, it will also air “Launch My Line,” where professionals from other industries pair with fashion designers for the chance to launch their own clothing line. Bravo is also working on three new programs: one centered on photographers Markus Klinko & Indrani, “Double Exposure”; another surrounding Kelly Cutrone, the founder of fashion publicity firm People’s Revolution (who has already seen reality TV stardom through her role as boss-mentor to “The City” star Whitney Port), and one evolving around Los Angeles boutique Fred Segal, all of which are in development.

Media buyers also remain bullish on the format. “With so many different contact points to consume media, it’s drilling down to more passion-driven content, be it around fashion, sports or gaming,” said Tom Meeks, senior vice president, entertainment director at agency Starcom USA. “While there’s more of the content, there’s an insatiable appetite, particularly driven by print and online.”

Besides the TV-friendly content, the continued growth is also a factor of appealing economics. Reality-type shows are cheaper to produce than scripted programs that employ writers, actors and shoot on location. They also provide a multiyear, repeatable format that can be rerun with new characters or storylines. More importantly, said Meeks, “the nonscripted shows are more friendly to advertisers. There are no writers on the shows, and revenue streams are created to have a [marketing] partner on board.”

Though shows surrounding fashion appeared well before “Project Runway” — remember MTV’s “House of Style?” — the reality contest is heralded as the “brass ring” of fashion reality programming. “It took us a while to figure out how to present fashion in an interesting way,” admitted Frances Berwick, Bravo’s general manager. “The straight televised shows from Bryant Park were incredibly niche.”

But “Project Runway” proved to be a hit for both Bravo and the marketing partners that participated with the show — the fifth season on Bravo averaged 3.6 million viewers. Companies including TRESemmé, American Express, Macy’s, Bluefly.com, L’Oréal Paris, Saturn and even Hershey’s have been sponsors.

Since the launch of “Project Runway,” others have looked to replicate the same formula — with wildly divergent degrees of success.

In addition to “The Hills” and “The City,” MTV on Tuesday launched “House of Jazmin,” a reality program about a 20-year-old Los Angeles designer. Soon to come: “Stylist” (not to be confused with “Stylista”), a program where a group of fashion stylists compete for a contract with a major agency.

More fashion magazines also sought out opportunities with television after seeing the success Elle reaped from its partnership with “Project Runway,” benefitting from an increase in media impressions, circulation and advertising during the five seasons on the show (ad pages jumped from 1,800 pages in 2004 to 2,600 in 2008).

Marie Claire is the magazine partner for the next five seasons of the show and recently partnered with the Style Network for “Running in Heels,” a reality program based on three interns working at the title. “It’s a tremendous marketing opportunity for the brand to bring it into people’s homes that may not be familiar with the magazine,” said Susan Plagemann, Marie Claire’s vice president and publisher.

Allure participated in Bravo’s “Shear Genius,” a reality contest to find the next great hairstylist, which will return for a third season. In Style partnered with Lifetime for “Blush: The Search for the Next Great Makeup Star,” but the show only lasted one season. Cosmopolitan and GQ partnered with Bravo for a season each of “Make Me a Supermodel,” and Harper’s Bazaar partnered with the network for reality contest “The Fashion Show,” which starred Isaac Mizrahi, Kelly Rowland and Fern Mallis. The network remains undecided about whether to renew these shows.

Meanwhile, “Running in Heels” only gathered 108,000 viewers on average during its first season, but Marie Claire saw an uptick in newsstand sales when the show launched in March. A new season hasn’t been confirmed. Comparatively, the first season of “The Rachel Zoe Project” garnered 688,000 viewers on average; “The Fashion Show” gathered an average of 1.1 million viewers; “Shear Genius” averaged 1.8 million viewers in its second season, while “Blush” attracted half of that, with 554,000 viewers.

Even Elle stumbled in participating in the CW network program “Stylista,” where budding fashion editors vied for a position at the magazine. The show garnered 1.6 million viewers, small for a program on a major network, and was not renewed. In comparison, “America’s Next Top Model” on CW averages 4 million viewers a week while “American Idol” attracts 25 million to 35 million viewers on Fox.

Since the cancellation of “Stylista,” Elle has hired Creative Artists Agency to help the magazine seek out other television- and film-related ventures.

“I’m not going to be a television producer, and yes we’re all looking for the next ‘Project Runway,’ but I’m looking for the opportunities to grow our brand and connect our brand to a film or television show that sits in our world,” said Carol Smith, Elle senior vice president, chief brand officer. Since “Runway,” Elle has appeared in several episodes of “Ugly Betty” and is a central part of the story line in season two of the “The City.”

And Elle isn’t alone. In this era of declining ad dollars and circulation numbers, almost every magazine out there is pitching — or hoping to be pitched — a TV deal.

With consumers slamming their wallets shut and retailers reporting declining sales, there still appears to be an insatiable hunger for fashion reality — at least on TV. As industry experts point out, what’s not to like? Bitchiness, competition, tears, fabulous clothes and beautiful people drive the business and the programs. As Meeks of Starcom USA says, the visual escapism is a whole lot better than “TARP-fund driven headlines.”

 

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