Hidden complexity in 'Design'
DISCERNING EYES: Judges for Bravos Top Design include Margaret Russell, left, and Kelly Wearstler. (Trae Patton / Bravo)
Ordinarily, this would be an item of interest mainly to reality addicts, the kind of people who race out to buy "The Hills" on DVD because they just can't get enough Lauren Conrad. But the back story on this one is a real beaut, more unkempt than "Top Design" mentor Todd Oldham's shaggy hair.
Amazingly enough, the story manages to involve not just a producing duo who go by the handle Magical Elves -- seriously, that's not only their corporate name but also how people in the industry casually refer to them, leading to such fairy-tale utterances as, "We have a long history with the Elves" -- but also film and TV mogul Harvey Weinstein and his (former?) friend, NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker, who now sit across from each other in a high-stakes lawsuit over "Runway."
We know, this is a lot of information. So let's take it one step at a time. It's important to understand because the tale vividly illustrates just how crucial reality shows have become to big media companies, not to mention how thoroughly these programs now permeate popular culture, to the degree that a very limited number of truly original unscripted concepts are now stretched across a seemingly endless roster of programs.
First, "Top Design." The show, which has its Season 2 premiere on Sept. 3, is an unabashed knockoff of "Top Chef," another Bravo competition show made by the Elves, except with interior design instead of cuisine as the subject. The similarity between the two programs is so obvious that no one even bothers to mask it. When I asked the Elves -- that would be executive producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz -- about how "Top Design" is different from "Top Chef," the question could easily have seemed a bit beside the point.
"In a lot of ways, it's actually the same, I think, in terms of the thing that we love to do, which is observing the creative process and watching people who are amazing, great characters, who are passionate about their careers and their creativity and what they aspire to do," Lipsitz told me. She described "Top Design" as a spinoff of "Chef."
Even so, the Elves' takeover of "Top Design" is big news in reality TV, mainly because of the duo's impressive track record as producers. Executives routinely describe them as among the best overseers of reality programming, a field that's roughly as crowded as a Lollapalooza mosh pit. The Elves have been key developers of the reality competition format, which throws a bunch of colorful, temperamental creative types into a pressure-cooker environment and then braces for a final showdown.
Their résumé also includes NBC's "Last Comic Standing" and Bravo's "Project Greenlight," but the capstone of the Elves' achievement is "Project Runway," which started with weak ratings in 2004 but has since bloomed into a cable sensation, the kind of show that melds a gay/downtown aesthetic with suburban status obsessions and thus can spark lively chatter at any cocktail party. The "Runway" formula now fuels Bravo's entire programming engine. If you're so tired of seeing Bravo's shelter-porn show "Flipping Out" on the TV sets at your gym, well, blame "Runway."
Last month, "Runway's" Season 5 rollout gave Bravo its most-watched premiere ever, with 2.9 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
But this will be the last season for "Runway" on Bravo. Later this year -- the premiere date is not yet certain -- the program will move to Lifetime. The Elves won't be back. According to an executive close to the show, their duties on "Runway" will be taken over by reality whiz Jonathan Murray, of MTV's "The Real World" and E! Entertainment's "Keeping Up With the Kardashians."
How and why "Runway" moved, touching off these other changes, is the basis of that lawsuit in a New York court. Earlier this year, Bravo's owner, NBC Universal, sued the Weinstein Co., which produces "Runway," claiming the Weinsteins reneged on a deal to give NBC a right of first refusal before taking the show elsewhere. Harvey Weinstein has denied this, testifying last month, "I'd rather cut off my arm than give them a right of first refusal."
The court is weighing a motion from NBC for a preliminary injunction that could halt the Lifetime airing until the entire case has been tried (a spokeswoman for NBC declined to comment on the case; a representative of the Weinstein Co. did not return a call). In the meantime, the suit has turned up some juicy revelations, such as the fact that "Runway" host Tim Gunn was paid nothing at all for his work on the first season and earned just $2,500 per episode for Season 2, even as the show's ratings blossomed.
But even as Zucker testified that "Runway" was "one of the most central programs to the entire company" -- a dramatic claim for a title many think of as a niche reality program but probably true given the importance of NBC's cable assets -- Weinstein argued that NBC Universal had "ruined" the show with a bunch of copycats. In other words, too many similar programs like "Top Chef" and "Top Design."
In many ways, the battle is reality-TV iteration of the timeless network/producer confrontation over how to best wring the value out of a hit. But the effects have already been far-reaching. In May, NBC Universal trumpeted a rich, exclusive overall producing deal with the Elves, effectively cutting the pair's future ties to "Runway," their main calling card.
Lipsitz called leaving the show "a heartbreaking decision for us." But it may have been a necessary loss: The new deal with NBC will presumably give Magical Elves an ownership stake in their new shows. As Lipsitz bluntly told Daily Variety, "We don't want to do work for hire anymore."
That leaves open the question of whether the "reality lifestyle" craze that's dominated cable over the last few years is, well, maybe not dead, but at least very, very tired. The Elves plan few changes on "Top Design" beyond the new host, India Hicks, a British-born stylista who happens to be the granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten and the godchild of Prince Charles. Cutforth said they've tried to make the design challenges, or assignments, "a bit more practical and less conceptual, less abstract."
Andy Cohen, a senior vice president at Bravo, insisted the lifestyle reality genre still has room to grow. "Is the category saturated? No. I think one of the things that makes our shows pop is that they are about peeling the layers off of the creative process," he said.
The Elves don't sound quite so sure. Lipsitz admitted that there are a lot of competition shows out there right now, and said the duo is looking at other types of programs.
"I guess the market is fairly democratic," Cutforth said of the competition fad. "And if there are too many of them, they'll probably go away. I don't know how many more competitive reality shows people have time for."
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