The rise and fall of ‘Project Runway,’ once the best reality show on TV

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Jan. 6, 2019 / 6:13 PM GMT / Updated 7:07 PM GMT

By Ani Bundel

More than a year after dozens of women credibly accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault in The New Yorker, Weinstein’s famous production house is no more. But one small corner of the empire remains: “Project Runway: All Stars,” the last vestige of “Project Runway,” begins its final season on Lifetime this month before the whole enterprise once again returns to Bravo.

“Project Runway,” first produced by Weinstein’s company Miramax, and then by TWC Television, initially launched on Bravo (owned by NBC Universal) in December of 2004, not long after Weinstein started dating fashion designer Georgina Chapman. In the heady days of reality TV’s ascendance, it was a sleeper hit. The series has been nominated for Emmys every single year it’s been on the air, as well as a Peabody Award.

The move to Lifetime — prompted by its success and Weinstein’s belief he could get more for it elsewhere — changed the way the show worked.

But the drama behind the scenes at “Project Runway” has always matched the spectacle in front of the camera, from Weinstein taking the show to Lifetime because he felt Bravo wasn’t paying enough to the lawsuit from NBC Universal that followed. Not to mention Lifetime’s entire “Project Runway” cottage industry of spinoffs, like the short-lived “Under the Gunn.” Now, Bravo has swooped in to buy back the hit from Weinstein’s former company. But with some of the most visible cast members walking, and the show already a shell of its former self, can the series once dubbed “The Greatest Show On Earth” by its fans rise from the ashes once again?

It will be an uphill battle. The move to Lifetime — prompted by its success and Weinstein’s belief he could get more for it elsewhere — changed the way the show worked. The first, most glaring change involved the scheduling of the premiere. Previously, it had been timed so the penultimate episodes coincided with New York Fashion Week and the debut of the Spring collections; only the last few designers would present collections. Lifetime filmed when convenient for the network, sometimes leading to over half the cast getting to show “collections” at Fashion Week.

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The show also started to feel more and more like an ad. There were always sponsored challenges on Bravo, some of which cross-promoted shows owned by parent company NBC Universal. But at Lifetime this trend accelerated, with everything from Disney entertainment brands like Marvel or luxury cars getting promotion. (Lifetime is owned by A+E Networks, which is in turned owned by Disney.) Contestants also got less time to work. In the Bravo years, most challenges occurred over two days or more; on Lifetime, contestants were sometimes not even given 10 hours. The fashion was there if you turned your head and squinted a little, but increasingly it took a backseat to the drama.

Still, while some fashion purists turned away, the formula continued to work. In 2016, with season 14’s finale bringing in ratings in the 2.5 million range, Lifetime renewed all three successful versions of the franchise through to 2020, including “Project Runway: All Stars.”

And then The New Yorker article dropped.

The fashion was there if you turned your head and squinted a little, but increasingly it took a backseat to the drama.

“Project Runway” season 16 was in the middle of airing at the time, and far more concerned about contestants cheating that the crisis engulfing the head of its production studio. The new year and “Project Runway: All Stars” season six came and still no word. (Though one can pinpoint what looks to be the week of filming when the scandal broke.) But as “All Stars” ended, A&E made public in bankruptcy filings it was severing ties with TWC Television for “breach of contract” and canceling all further seasons of “Project Runway.” Less than a month later, Bravo announced it had stepped in and bought the rights to “Project Runway” back.

But while Bravo bought back the main series, Lifetime still had a season of “All Stars” technically left on the books. The network is treating it like a series finale, rounding up as many winners as it can from the various Lifetime iterations, domestic and international. Host Alyssa Milano, who has been a vocal #MeToo supporter, is once again teamed up with Weinstein’s now-ex-wife and longtime “Runway” judge Georgina Chapman. It’s a smart ratings ploy, as fans of the series will almost certainly tune in both to see if the show will mention the elephant in the room, as well as to see fan favorites — most likely for the last time. (Unless Bravo decides to resurrect All-Stars for themselves.)


Because while the series will have the same branding when it picks back up over on Bravo, most of the cast is not making the transfer. Most importantly, it is losing host Heidi Klum and mentor Tim Gunn. Many fans see the departure of these two as a bad sign. In the last decade, Gunn and Klum became the unmistakable faces of the series, and Gunn is seen by most as its heart. But Klum had an executive producer credit on the show, and both had massive clout over the proceedings. This included a pact that if both were not available to be part of a planned season, it was not to be called “Project Runway.” (This came into play once when Gunn was available and willing, but Klum was not. The resulting show was the aforementioned “Under The Gunn.”) Obviously, Bravo would not be willing to give them the same free rein in the move back, or reportedly, even the same salary.

Bravo has landed a good replacement for Gunn in “Project Runway” winner of season four, Christian Siriano, who is arguably the show’s only well-known winner and has already participated in various roles on some of the spinoff series. He’s also a legitimately talented designer who knows his stuff. Where fans should be concerned is model Karlie Kloss taking over for Klum. The hosting job looks easy, but a long string of hosting failures in the various spinoff iterations speaks to the contrary. Kloss looks the part, but there’s no telling if she’s smart enough to play the role correctly, or if the family she married into is going to pose a problem for the show’s devoted LGBTQ fan base.

Bravo is betting, despite the final round of dramatics from Lifetime’s “All Stars,” that audiences will follow the series back to its original home. They may be right. If so, revenge will turn out to be a dish best served with thoughtfully chosen shoes from the Accessory Wall.