In LA this July, at the TV critics’ press tour, I had a conversation with Lifetime president Andrea Wong about her network’s acquisition of Project Runway, the reality show that defined both Bravo and an entire new subgenre of competitive reality TV.
As part of the move to the network, which Bravo parent NBC Universal is contesting in court, the show will also lose its production company, Magical Elves, who opted to leave the series and focus instead on shows that they own and are not work-for-hire.
I was concerned, I told Wong, by reports that Bunim/Murray, the company that defined reality as we know it with The Real World in the early 1990s, would take over the show. While she wouldn’t confirm or deny the now-apparent inevitability of that decision, she said that ‘whether it’s Bunim/Murray or someone else,’ it doesn’t really matter because the show has an already-defined ‘template’ that’s easily reproduced.
It certainly does have a template, and that template has been reproduced. Watch any of Bravo’s competition reality series and you’ll see Magical Elves’ influence, if not imprint, all over them: Top Design, Shear Genius, Make Me a Supermodel. Other nets have borrowed the formula too.
Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work.
For example, VH1 is currently airing Glam God, a competition between celebrity stylists that is an obvious attempt to borrow the Runway formula. But its EP is Cris Abrego, who’s best known for his VH1 celebreality series, such as The Surreal Life and Flavor of Love (produced with Mark Cronin under the 51 Minds Productions banner). Glam has the same tone of Abrego’s previous shows, which works well when there’s a house full of D-list celebrities, but not so well when you’re trying to emulate a classy subgenre. From the casting (weak, and clearly personality-obsessed instead of talent-oriented) to the set design (cheap), Glam just doesn’t feel right.
The same is true of some of Bravo’s own Runway clones, such as Make Me a Supermodel, which managed to have about as much life as a mannequin, and the interior design competition Top Design.
Produced in its first season by Stone and Company Entertainment, Top Design was a mess, awkwardly hosted by Todd Oldham and terribly judged by Jonathan Adler, with challenges limited mostly to a studio space full of empty white boxes. Bravo’s surprise renewal of the series also came with news that the network wised up, dumping Stone and Company and giving the second season of Top Design to Magical Elves. It was a clear acknowledgment that another company wasn’t capable of producing the same type of entertainment that the network’s viewers had come to expect.
The best production companies, from 51 Minds to Magical Elves to Mark Burnett Productions, are able to infuse unscripted shows with their own signature elements and attitude. Burnett’s shows feature cinematic photography, musical scores and dramatic editing – and that’s true even of his shows that didn’t exactly work, like NBC’s The Restaurant. 51 Minds offers trashy but self-aware series that don’t pretend to be something they’re not.
When producers try to shift tones and templates, they run into the kinds of problems series like Glam God and Top Design have. Perhaps there are examples of it working successfully, but it’s extremely apparent even to viewers when it fails.
Since the early 1990s, Bunim/Murray has made a name for itself reveling in the crazy, often drunken antics of 20-somethings with extreme personalities, such as Fox’s Paris Hilton vehicle, The Simple Life, Oxygen’s The Bad Girls Club, and the venerable but ever-weakening The Real World. Its attempts to go outside that mold (Fox’s The Rebel Billionaire, ABC’s The Scholar, FX’s Murder) haven’t exactly worked.
To be fair, its syndicated daytime series Starting Over was a ratings success and a cult favorite, and it produced the first network reality show, Making the Band, although that was pulled from the air during sweeps, perhaps because it was ahead of its time.
While Bunim/Murray excels at producing series like its Real World/Road Rules Challenge, a show that brilliantly and horrifyingly established careers for its other shows’ stars, it’s never produced anything along the lines of Project Runway. And that’s okay.
Perhaps Wong is right that the Bravo series has such a clearly defined personality that it can easily be mimicked. We’ll see in early 2009. But what does that say about the company doing the copying, which essentially becomes a glorified laborer that has no need for creativity or individuality?