When NBC first announced late last year that it would be bringing the John de Mol format The Voice to America, some TV critics and industry players alike could barely contain their cynicism. Even with the announcement of Mark Burnett as executive producer, some pundits couldn’t fathom that another singing competition would work on American television. After all, many were saying American Idol‘s days were numbered following the exit of Simon Cowell; the loss of Ellen DeGeneres, on the other hand, wasn’t seen as that fatal of a blow.
Fast forward several months, and Idol experienced a rebirth with the addition of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez as judges, and The Voice emerged as the unscripted hit of 2011, thanks to both its central conceit – focusing on the voices of the talent via “blind” auditions – and the addition of celebrity mentors, including Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5′s Adam Levine. What was seen by many as an exercise doomed to fail wound up resuscitating an unscripted television genre.
With the upcoming launch of Fashion Star, a new fashion competition slated to air early in 2012, lightning might strike twice for NBC. It will have an iconic host in supermodel Elle Macpherson, and it will also have the talents of Magical Elves, the production team behind the original version of one of the biggest shows in the fashion competition genre, Project Runway. It will also, like The Voice, bring three mentors on board to aid the young designers facing off against each other.
Importantly, it will also integrate a branded element that will set the show apart from others in its field. Not only have three of the top fashion retailers in America signed up to take part in a pronounced way, the show itself could even facilitate the launching of a fashion brand. All of these factors combined might serve to liven up the crowded catwalk that is fashion-oriented reality television.
The original idea for Fashion Star was brought to NBC by former NBC programming topper and Electus founder Ben Silverman, and Rick Ringbakk, one of the principals of 5×5 Media.
As Paul Telegdy, the recently promoted president of alternative and late night programming for NBC recalls, the two men came to him with a big name – Macpherson – and an even bigger idea.
“The core premise involved this very ambitious idea that clothes you saw air on a TV show would be available in stores the following day,” says Telegdy. “That is a very big idea – think of the logistics involved in manufacturing, distribution and also the complicated retail partnerships that [would have to be] integrated into the show.”
Having Macpherson involved was a definite plus. “Her work as a model and icon in fashion is part of the chapter heading of much of her life, but she’s evolved into a multi-million dollar fashion brand with her own line of lingerie and swimwear,” explains Telegdy.
The concept evolved from self-contained episodes to a serialized fashion competition. Telegdy was convinced that this was an idea big enough to lure the Elves back into the genre following several seasons of Runway, and upon bringing Elves founders Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth to the table with Silverman and Ringbakk, the show developed further.
Fashion Star will see designers compete with each other to get their clothes into the stores of three major retail chains. Buyers from the chains act as the judges, and the winning designs will indeed be available in the chains’ stores the next day. The ultimate winner will get the chance to launch his or her line in all three chains.
In July, NBC announced the retail partners taking part, and they are formidable indeed. Macy’s, H&M and Saks Fifth Avenue have all signed on, with buyers from each chain appearing on the program and actually spending money on the merchandise created by the designers.
“There will be people who will emerge as having a particularly good week depending on the amount of money spent at the stores,” explains Telegdy. “We got up to six figures in individual orders very rapidly.”
Mike Duffy, MD of branded content at Electus, says the presence of the brands ups the competition aspect and therefore the entertainment value of the show. After all, it’s not just the designers competing against each other, but the retail brands are also facing off to get the most bang for their buying bucks.
“Ben talks about [Fashion Star] as a show that actually doesn’t exist without brand integration, and I think viewers are going to look at that, and they’re not going to think that it’s heavy handed,” Duffy says.
“They’re going to see that it actually gives great insight into how brands think, and it also offers a significant part of the entertainment agenda. All of the brands associated with Fashion Star look amazing in the show, because it’s not a stretch in incorporating them.”
Telegdy points out that Maybelline and Unilever hair care product Suave are also brand partners for the show. “Those also provide us with millions of point-of-sale activation points as we go into launching the show,” he explains.
Like The Voice, Telegdy says NBC plans to fully use the show’s interactive potential through social media. And there, the presence of both the brands and the high-profile mentors – Jessica Simpson, John Varvatos and Nicole Richie – can only spur buzz.
“It makes a difference to have people who are willing participants in these sorts of things,” admits Telegdy. “It’s great to bring in Jessica Simpson who has a daily conversation with seven and a half million people via whatever forms of social media.”
To further separate Fashion Star from the fashion reality flock, producers will also incorporate elements of variety shows, including music, to amp up the entertainment value for audiences.
“What we’re trying to do is create a new vocabulary of what fashion on television looks like,” says Telegdy. “So we draw on the spectacle of awards shows and big variety shows to engage the audience in something that looks like more than a big catwalk with lots of people sitting around it.”
We’ll have to wait until the new year to see how – and if – the mix works, and if what Telegdy calls “the latticework of conversations” involved in bringing the retailers to the program will give it both credibility and cachet among fashion-conscious viewers and critics alike. Either way, Telegdy says for those designers taking part, it has been a winning combination thus far.
“I don’t think I’ve known of the ability to buy the clothes of any previous winner of a fashion [reality] show,” he says. “People are being given life-changing forays into the fashion market.”