Career Curveballs: How Project Runway “Flopped”

Project Runway Challenge on
Project Runway Challenge on

This article it’s gold. It’s always eye opening to understand how the big shots rise up from a challenge or even a flop. Project Runway was at it’s third episode when they began to rethink strategy and our podcast is in its third week. While we’re receiving amazing feedback and ratings, there’s always room from momentum. I hope you see something valuable for your business too.

Original piece written by Lauren Zalaznick, Media, Digital, Marketing, TV & Film Professional. Posted on LinkedIn April 28, 2014.

I’ve had many curveballs thrown at me over the course of my career. In this particular story, you happen to catch the Bravo team in a crucial early-season game, playing against the 80 or so rivals that constitute the National Cable League. We’re hoping to log some solid singles. Our team is young, hungry and aggressive, so there’s no doubt our sights are on the occasional home run, and, in our wildest dreams, a grand slam. We need to impress the scouts, writers and fans or risk getting sent back to the minors. And, just like baseball, in the game of the TV business, we need a hit.

Team Bravo was ready. We were taking it one pitch at a time. And then…a curveball. A wicked one, at that. Predictably, we whiff! A painful, embarrassing, drop the bat and skulk off the field failure. Game over.

That’s essentially what happened in December 2004 when we launched Project Runway at Bravo. You might think, “Hey wait! I thought Project Runway was a super-sized hit!” Heck, it’s been nominated for (at last count) 29 Emmy Awards, winning many, along with numerous Directors Guild, Producers Guild and GLAAD Awards. It was even awarded the highly selective and prestigious Peabody! It’s entering production on its 17th season this summer, for goodness’ sake.

Well, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, it flopped.

The Very Beginning

Project Runway -
I got to Bravo in May 2004 as a result of the NBC acquisition of Universal, where I was working as the President of TRiO, a small but beloved network best known for its brilliant-but-cancelled programming franchise.

By the time I arrived at the network, Queer Eye was already facing some ratings declines. I was nervous: Bravo’s programming and development slate, while plentiful, wasn’t unified in terms of satisfying the Queer Eye reality audience. We needed more shows with elements of real creativity, a posh, high-end sensibility, and big personalities.

Looking over that long development slate: Eureka! We had…Project Runway. Runway was the show we thought was smack in the cross-hairs of the audience we would later call the “Affluencers” — well-educated, aspirational, affluent and influential viewers.

We put Runway on the “fast track,” and pushed to get it fully developed, cast, filmed, marketed and launched by the end of the year.

There are a lot of great stories: putting together the original host and judging team — Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia and the most famous mentor of them all, Tim Gunn! The stellar production company, Magical Elves, was working with Team Bravo to rigorously develop the creative challenges that made the early Runway seasons shine. We needed a hit.

We chose our airdate painstakingly: Dec. 1 at 10 p.m.

The Strategy

We chose Wednesdays to take advantage of the promotional platform that Tuesday night’s Queer Eye audience afforded during its 10 p.m. airing. And, we chose the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving so that the broadcast networks (remember, no DVRs! No Netflix! No Facebook!) would be “dark,” meaning their fall season had ended with November “sweeps” and they would be airing repeats, leaving less competition for cable.

We used every means available to craft a strong promotional and marketing strategy. Some were tried and true, some we were inventing as we went along. We had a multi-million dollar ad campaign. We had some cross-promotion on NBC and the other cable networks in the portfolio, a pre-cursor to the massive cross-promotion that media conglomerates regularly do today. We promoted it heavily on Bravo’s own air to introduce the cast, the designers and the concept.

Our biggest innovation was that we looked to engage viewers and connect them to the designers and invest them in the competition on the web at a very “1.0” time. “Rate The Runway” was an early effort at interactivity that gave the viewer a platform to voice their opinion and be heard. We even “syndicated” content non-linearly, as a way to entice a non-traditional TV audience, on portals like AOL and Yahoo.

Challenge #1 & Gameplan

Bloggers - Project Runway -

Great PR was our stock in trade. But we quickly realized that the traditional fashion press corps was not yet excited to cover “TV fashion.” So, we researched the newly emerging fashion blogosphere, paying attention to the sites that were the favorites of what we hoped would be our most passionate audience.

And finally, we wanted to capture the attention of the press off the TV pages, so we held a fashion show across the street from Macy’s near Herald Square in New York City, right before launch. In November, we brought the designers and their original fashions to the catwalk featuring a 20-foot-high pair of scissors that kicked off the marketing campaign “12 Designers. Only 1 Will Make The Cut.” Heidi Klum was a trooper, anchoring the event in the 30-degree weather in a little black dress.


flop - project runway -

And so, six months almost to the day from when I started at Bravo, we launched Project Runway. My team had done a great job. We had covered all the bases. What could go wrong?

The show aired, as scheduled, at 10 p.m. on Wed., Dec. 1, 2004.

Nielsen crunched their data, our research team crunched some more data and then the call came. CURVEBALL! Swing and a miss. A big miss. The ratings were low. Boy, were they low. So low that we thought maybe Nielsen made a mistake. Or, maybe our research team made a mistake and moved the decimal point one position to the left? Maybe two!

But no one had made any mistake. The numbers were the numbers. We premiered to a .17 rating “in the demo,” meaning that fewer than two out of every thousand Americans aged 18 to 49 was watching. We had projected close to ten times that number. We were in an ad sales hole. I was potentially in a real management hole.

Episode 2: Wed., Dec. 8 at 10 p.m. WHIFF. The curveball got right by us, again. Maybe a slight improvement, but marginal.

I remember watching that third week on air, as if it was a super slo-mo replay. We were really dreading going to work on Thursday. Guess what? The third week’s ratings were even lower than the first week’s premiere number!! By quite a bit!

The reality of the TV business is that shows fail. The real challenge of this situation was that if you think you know your audience, you think you’ve made the right kind of show, executed it flawlessly, and it doesn’t work, what else in the world could you possibly think of to put in front of that audience? Maybe the entire premise of the re-invention of Bravo, for which I was responsible, was deeply flawed? Now that’s a curveball.

Time to Re-think Strategy

Tim Gunn - Project Runway -

Marketing and PR sat with me at the conference table in my office virtually around the clock. We had the two days prior to Christmas break to architect and deploy a strategy before the next original aired the first Wednesday after New Year’s.

Goal: How to get more people to watch the next premiere episode in January?

    Step 1: Marathoning: Instead of pulling Runway repeats from the schedule over the next two weeks for shows we knew could pull a rating, like Queer Eye, Celebrity Poker Showdown or Jonathan Antin’s Blowout, we doubled down on Runway. We tripled down. We infinitied down.

    We decided to air the first three episodes as much as we possibly could. In the days before “binging,” cable had invented “marathoning.” So, in prime time, in daytime, on weekends, in late night, in early morning, we aired those episodes back-to-back-to-back. Rinse. Repeat.

    Step 2: Relentless On-Air Promotion: We would promote Runway in every commercial break, sometimes twice, to the exclusion of almost every other show on the channel.

    Step 3: Focus Groups: We would focus-group the episodes to better understand what wasn’t grabbing our audience. How could we re-cut future episodes to deliver more or less fashion, emotion, “how-to,” judging…more or less of anything that would connect to our viewers?

    Step 4: Press: We worked the fashion press (who had almost 100 percent ignored us) and our loyal LGBT press to do new stories, find new angles.

    Step 5 Put in more chedda: We scrimped and shaved marketing dollars from other initiatives for the end of the year and beginning of the next to do a mini “wave two” of paid marketing.

    Step 6: Insider Blogging:

No one has ever watched Christmas break ratings the way we did. We saw little to encourage us, but we stayed the course with our strategy right up until the final “New Year’s Marathon” the Sunday before the next premiere airing. Brave, maybe, but by this point we really had no choice!

Showtime Take Two


Back to work on Monday after New Year’s 2005. Looking for any sign of life other than the ratings, we made one small discovery: the show site we launched had really blown up. Tim Gunn’s blog generated over 1 million page views in a few short days (remember it was Dec. 2004) on a site that did 5 million page views monthly. But who knew what that could prove.

Wednesday night: watch. Thursday morning: a) wait for ratings. b) avoid bosses’ phone calls.

The call comes in from research. Finally, some success! We saw a real spike in the ratings. Mind you, even virtually quadrupling December’s rating, which is what we did, it was still a tough number to digest, versus our original expectation, but any time you see a percentage increase like that, you pay attention! We finally got a piece of that curveball.

Finally Hit Gold

Project Runway Flop -
We continued our strategy, including marathoning and relentless on-air promotion, and more and more web content.

A few weeks later, the season finale brought in over a million viewers, a number highly coveted even by today’s network ratings standards.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we had created a franchise. Runway was the first competitive reality show from a cable network to be Emmy-nominated in its category along with four broadcast competitors. It ushered in an era of prime time shows about creativity. It legitimized “reality television.” A LGBT audience was no longer deemed “niche,” but was the nucleus for a channel with mass appeal. And most importantly, we began to operate as a team that could handle the curveball.

From that point forward, Bravo could confront missteps or bad luck or whatever else came our way. We experienced quite another curveball when, years later, we inauspiciously lost Project Runway, entirely, from Bravo. Some people thought that was more like a bean ball to the head. Like this first one, though, we triumphed, growing the network into the Top 10 after losing one of the biggest shows in cable history, at its peak. But that’s another story, entirely.

We probably wouldn’t have been able to recover from this, or any other challenge that came our way, had we not conquered this first huge challenge as well and as completely as we did.

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