Runway vs. Housewives

Project Runway finally returns with a new network and a new competitor in its old slot—Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta.  Choire Sicha handicaps the Thursday Night Smackdown.

Out in Hawaii today, reality-TV fembot Heidi Klum, enormously pregnant with her fourth child, is bobbing ethereally about the beaches in a white shift-dress, on an extended vacation with Seal and the kids. Meanwhile, down in Atlanta, NeNe Leakes, the newly minted tabloid darling and former stripper, is busy stomping around and snatching wigs (and whatever else she does for fun and profit).

But at 10 p.m. tonight, when Klum’s Project Runway returns to television after a harrowing 309-day hiatus—spurred by a wild legal fight and network switch—those two ladies will go claw-to-claw in this summer’s Great Thursday Night Reality Show Smackdown.

Within the first minutes, a maladjusted designer is weeping over a personal matter. What is this, The Real World?

Behind the scenes, two tough female cable-network heads are counting on their star proxies to deliver every eyeball they can. The network morning shows have been loaded; the sides of every city bus bought; the fan blogs are all seeded with clips, and it's now essentially all over but the gloating and recriminations—and some parties.

In L.A., Andrea Wong, the president and CEO of Lifetime, Runway’s new cable home after the bloody exit from Bravo last year, has invited her staff to gather and watch the East Coast feed live tonight in the office. After that, Jonathan Murray, co-creator of MTV’s Real World, now an executive producer of Runway, will throw a swank party at a Beverly Hills hotel.

Runway host Tim Gunn, however, is in hot, stinky New York City. His co-star Klum has long since finished doing press—"We're going to go on holiday for a few weeks!" she told me on July 15, and split for the beach. ("She was able to do a bunch of late-night shows in July before she went into her final stages of pregnancy," said Wong.)

Poor Tim Gunn! He has been too busy this summer even to leave New York for a visit with his dying mother. His recent duties included doing Good Morning America with Nina Garcia yesterday—and a cameo on Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva, a show about a model living in the body of a fat woman (just like his co-star!).

Also in New York will be Gunn's old friends at Bravo, where Runway spent its first five seasons before the Weinstein brothers offered it up to the hungrier bidders at Lifetime for what is essentially a five-year lease. (Lifetime paid at least $150 million, according to reports; in return, as a settlement with Bravo-parent NBC Universal, The Weinstein Company paid millions to NBC for the right to move the show.) Tonight, Team Bravo is banking on NeNe and her Real Housewives of Atlanta frenemies to continue delivering solid numbers—and also some serious, unending blog cacophony.

Bravo executive Andy Cohen will take to the cable-waves himself in his live-at-midnight post- Housewives chatfest with a phone-in special guest appearance by his buddy Anderson Cooper. But Runway has guest judge Lindsay Lohan tonight. But wait—Lindsay's father Michael Lohan is going to be on some re-cut wig-pulling Real Housewives footage over on Bravo at essentially the same time!

“I’ll also be glued to my BlackBerry waiting for the ratings,” said Frances Berwick, general manager of Bravo.

The mind reels. It's a scattershot cage match of up-market, demo-drawing star power: the ultimate battle of reality TV queens.

Come bleary Friday morning, everyone will be itching to see what paid off for whom. Lifetime, having spent well on the series, surely expects the kind of numbers that Bravo wrung from the show last year. (The Season Four Runway finale had more than five million viewers, counting live and same-day DVR viewers, and was pushing four million "in the demo"; the Season Five finale, had short of five million by that metric, and just over three million of those tasty 18-to-49 viewers.)

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"I'll also be glued to my BlackBerry waiting for the ratings, because we have high expectations for the night ourselves," said Frances Berwick, the general manager of Bravo. Real Housewives has been hovering around three million viewers, including roughly two million aged 18 to 49, which is all they care about.

"We're obsessive about the competition," Berwick said. "We always look at whenever someone's launching something new, particularly when it's in our wheelhouse." Point: Runway is now a "new" show. ("We had two missions," said Wong. "One was to reach the core fan of Runway, to tell them where the show is, that it's the same show that they now and love but even better and where to find it." Her point: No, it's the same show!)

Just how did Runway end up on Thursdays, anyway, pushing against Bravo's bulwark of NeNe and pals? "Ah! We really thought it was a great place to build a beachhead in unscripted," said Wong. "It's great for advertisers."

So everyone will be sweating through the night. While the nation learns which designers are in and who is out, and which housewife has greater social cachet, at least none of the parties involved will be sending anyone to jail. Thank God, there are no sweeps weeks on cable.

As far as can be seen from a screener—which were sent out quite recently, and, bizarrely, without the show's ending, as if anyone would spoil the first elimination—the new/old Runway is a pitch-perfect karaoke to the format. Although there is the faintest feeling that something’s changed.

Early on in the premiere, a cast-welcoming rooftop party is swept with gorgeous horizontal L.A. light, as if Melrose Place was being shot just off-screen. And within the first minutes, a maladjusted designer is weeping over a personal matter. What is this, The Real World? (Tim Gunn is forced to console the contestant; although he is the nicest man alive, it looks positively unnatural. He basically slaps the kid on the rump and sends him back in the game.) But overall, the show does feel the same.

An unlucky break for Lifetime, which must have tickled everyone at Bravo, was last weekend's devastating Times profile of the Weinsteins, depicting them as having run their company into the ground over the last few years. "I really don't have an opinion," Bravo's Berwick said of the Weinstein article. "We worked with them for a number of years and that relationship is over."

An obscure TV-dial change twisted the knife even further. In New York yesterday, Oxygen (a sister network of Bravo) moved to channel 12, Lifetime’s longtime home. Meanwhile, Lifetime, choosing not to pay for placement, is moving way up to channel 62. With a million-plus households in the market, lost channel-surfers could be tuning in to Oxygen’s all-day Snapped marathon instead of Runway.

Lifetime, to its credit, did the obvious and smart thing: They created the half-hour Models of the Runway spinoff, which was much-desired by the show's original producers. "I don't know why it I didn't happen until now!" said Wong brightly. Yes, why? "I don't know why!" said the Bunim-Murray producer. "I don't know if it was a Bravo decision or what that was."

So, tonight, at long last, after four Reba reruns, a veritable Runway orgy commences on Lifetime. There is the two-hour Project Runway: All Star Challenge; there is Runway itself; then there is the new half-hour Models of the Runway; and then those two shows rerun.

Today, Bravo has some six or so hours, all-told, of Atlanta Housewives programming action.

Exhausted? Well pace yourself. This happens all over again next week. "Hey, you know, Thursday is just the first number," said Wong. "Thursday is just the first episode!" Cripes. At least Heidi will most likely still be on vacation.

Plus: Check out Fashion Beast, for more news on the latest runway shows, hot designers, and emerging trends.

Choire Sicha is a former editor of Gawker and editor at large of Radar magazine. He has written for The New York Times and The New York Observer, and contributes weekly to the Los Angeles Times.