The State of Reality TV: When in the World is Project Runway?

February 5, 2011
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While reality television has made many contributions to the American television landscape, one of its most “revolutionary” may be its cyclical ubiquity. As soon as one season ends, the next season seems to begin; while they may not air dramatically more episodes than broadcast series in the span of a year, at least following the North American model of 22-episode seasons, the constant shifts to new casts means that the entire process keeps repeating: one minute you’re being introduced to a new set of contestants and watching them evolve into characters, and the next thing you know the season is over and you’re already hearing about the great new cast coming up next season.

This is especially true of a show like Project Runway, which in recent years has seemingly been on every time you turn around. Thanks to the series’ forced hiatus as a result of lawsuits regarding its move to Lifetime, Runway aired three seasons – 49 episodes in total – in just 14 months between August 2009 and October 2010. This was exaggerated by the sixth season being “on the shelf” for a lengthy period, and the seventh season being rushed to counteract poor viewer response to the franchise’s Lifetime debut, but the series’ omnipresence is demonstrative of general trends within the genre (if in an exaggerated form).

However, the same period has been marked by the absence of two of the series’ most prominent international spinoffs: both Project Runway Australia (2008-Present) and Project Runway Canada (2007-2009) debuted in their respective countries to relative success, earning second seasons and, in the case of the Canadian version, even moving from a niche cable outlet to a national network. Each show largely followed the formula of the American series, with a famous fashion model host (Kristy Hinze in Australia, Iman in Canada), a fashion industry mentor, and a collection of celebrity guests and judgmental observers to complete the package.

The basic format of the series may have remained intact when the show made its way to other countries, but the scheduling model has been lost in translation. Both the Australian and Canadian series aired only one season per year, and both dealt with substantial hiatuses: this is particularly true for the Australian series, which has been off the air for nearly two years. While America’s love affair with reality television has had international ramifications when formats like Project Runway which originated in the U.S. are spread to countries around the world, the way in which the series are scheduled seems to have been considerably less influential internationally.

Some of this certainly has to do with simple industrial realities. American cable networks have the luxury of appealing to niche audiences, with networks like Bravo and Lifetime able to position shows like Project Runway as signature series designed to deliver female viewers to their advertisers. International producers, meanwhile, are working with less industrial infrastructure in general, and most likely less in the way of targeted cable networks that seem a fit for narrowcast reality programming as well. They simply don’t have the resources to schedule two seasons in a single year, which makes emulating the American schedule more challenging.

However, I find myself curious if there are more cultural reasons for the vast proliferation gap between Project Runway and its international adaptations. If we look at the vast array of versions, the longest-running has been the United Kingdom’s Project Catwalk, which lasted three seasons from 2006-2008. While I haven’t seen the series, I do wonder whether its relative longevity stems from the prominence of London as one of the world’s fashion capitals, at least relative to Melbourne or Toronto. Even within the American series, location and setting seem to play a prominent role: viewers and critics alike panned the series’ move to Los Angeles in Season Six, prompting Lifetime to promote the return to New York as the defining feature of the seventh season. Perhaps the same principle applies internationally, and certain locations can only sustain a couple of seasons before fading away into local pop culture history.

And yet, some part of me wants to believe that this may be a purposeful choice on the part of international producers. While these changes are perhaps facilitated by concerns over financial commitments and cultural limitations, there seem to be creative benefits to this scheduling model. Personally, despite having seen countless seasons of the American series beforehand, both the Canadian and Australian versions felt remarkably novel. The format was more or less the same, but the wait between seasons made their introductions more eventful, and their conclusions more effectively bittersweet. The return of the American series feels like routine, but is reality television not (like television in general) more effective – and affecting – when we anticipate its return with baited breath?

With a new host secured, Project Runway Australia will return for its overdue third season later this year (although on a new network). In an era where the American version has shifted to overstuffed 90-minute episodes and barely takes a breath before plunging into a new season of “making it work,” there is something wonderfully refreshing about the notion of Project Runway being a scarce commodity; it’s too bad, then, that most American viewers rarely get to experience such a feeling.


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2 Responses to “ The State of Reality TV: When in the World is Project Runway? ”

  1. Bärbel Göbel on February 5, 2011 at 2:59 PM

    Great piece. I think that scarcity and a one-per year season schedule do a lot to elevate the programming to a higher standard and make it more mainstream in turn, but I also believe that in many instances the foreign television market simply plays by different rules from the US market, which has been saturated for decades.
    Extending or shortening programs, changing standard episode numbers per season or the amount of seasons produced is of course bound to the national industry in question.
    For example, although the series cannot and should not be compared to “Project Runway” in any fashion, “Germany’s Top Model”, hosted by Heidi Klum, “suffered” by Heidi’s like for feature length, and went to 90minute standard episodes in its second season. In Germany, this worked wonders, as the episodes now can successfully disrupt the stripping and flow of other networks and stations. All of German TV is on a very strict schedule all stations adhere to almost 100% of the time. Hence one programming choice like this, inhibits zapping. In the US the start and end times appear more fluid to begin with, and the schedule change in Project Runway does not seem to have the same effects, especially with DVRs becoming a strong trend.
    I find it horrible, much like the unnecessary minutes in Project Runway btw. I liked the compressed version with less drama better.

    On another note, I wondered about the Project Runway foreign format sales locations, as the European market does not really seem to catch on? Any pointers on this?

    • Myles McNutt on February 5, 2011 at 3:59 PM

      First, I don’t know if it was intentional, but your use of “in any fashion” was most wonderful. Kudos.

      And yes, I was not a fan of the 90-minute episodes for a number of reasons. While there was a single episode which benefited from the additional time, turning a designer’s downfall into a Shakespearean tragedy with aplomb, the rest felt like a burden. The things being added were not the reasons I was watching, and the additional time meant that watching the show took more time out of my week. The show is not “appointment television” to the point where the extra time will make me watch more Lifetime and less everything else – I will just not bother watching Lifetime.

      As for Project Runway in Europe, I can only speculate. Perhaps it’s a question of underdeveloped fashion industries, or perhaps the format is seen as too distinctly American (or, at the very least, distinctly “English”)? That doesn’t make any sense either, but it does seem strange that a country like Italy hasn’t at least considered it. Maybe it is considered too low brow for certain fashion industries? It’s certainly an intriguing question.