Real People, Real Business

The upcoming television season will see a slew of new fashion reality shows, whose stars are out to turn their moments of fame into burgeoning businesses.

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Lauren Lexton, co-founder and executive producer at Authentic Entertainment, producer of WE tv’s “Amsale Girls” and the Sundance Channel’s “All On the Line” with Elle’s creative director Joe Zee, said, “Everybody is looking for personality-driven shows, whereas a couple of years ago you could probably sell a concept and say, ‘Hey, we could get somebody in this world to host it and lead us through it.’ Everything has to have someone authentic to lead you into that world. Joe Zee is a perfect example.”

Rob Sharenow, executive vice president of programming at Lifetime, which is working on a show tentatively titled “24-Hour Catwalk” hosted by Alexa Chung that pits designers against each other in runway challenges, said, “The thing that is happening now in fashion culture is that every character and subset of skill is being explored, and there is going to be great shows coming out of that.”

Is it all too much? Cable channels want to retain audiences for ongoing fashion reality programming — “The Rachel Zoe Project,” for instance, will be back Sept. 6 for its fourth season with “a bang and a baby,” quipped Shari Levine, Bravo’s senior vice president of production — while simultaneously crowding the airwaves with a slew of spin-offs. Among them are Bravo’s “Mad Fashion,” starring “Project Runway” alum Chris March, and “It’s a Brad, Brad World,” with Zoe protégé Brad Goreski, and Lifetime’s “Project Accessory” and “Project Runway All Stars.”

Despite the mounting competition for fashion television viewers’ time, Levine doesn’t think the fashion reality programming saturation point has been reached. “It keeps going,” she said. “We are in a celebrity-focused society at this moment in time. We have been for a while, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any abatement of that. The interest in fashion goes hand-in-hand with that.”

Levine’s theory will get a crucial test on a major network with “Fashion Star.” Scheduled for the first half of next year on NBC, “Fashion Star” is a reality competition intended to showcase designers making clothes for the masses. The judges are buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and H&M whose support for around 14 contestants will be exhibited by orders for their clothes. Elle Macpherson has signed on to host and executive produce, and Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and John Varvatos will be mentors.

Viewers will be able to purchase the contestants’ designs after episodes air. The merchandise is expected to span fashion categories, including lingerie, bathing suits, denim and accessories. Rick Ringbakk, a reality show producer from 5x5 Media who is producing “Fashion Star” along with Electus’ Ben Silverman and Magical Elves’ Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth, is adamant the show will differentiate itself from the fashion pack, notably “Project Runway,” by dealing with what average people wear, not $10,000 evening dresses. The winning contestant will receive a multimillion-dollar contract to put collections in the three retailers involved in the judging.

“Fashion has had a huge foothold in the cable space for many years and has proven itself to be successful in the cable space, but has not really been brought to network television in a way that has really worked. We felt that the time was right to bring fashion to a larger audience,” said Ringbakk. “This is a big, glossy studio-based show that is going to do for fashion what ‘Dancing with the Stars’ did for ballroom dancing.”

Levine of NBC-owned Bravo believes “Fashion Star” can work. “There is an enormous thirst out there because everybody styles themselves,” she said of fashion programming. Sharenow of Lifetime, however, isn’t convinced. “The ‘Project Runway’ audience is broadening. Imitators play a dangerous game because once you have a very strong franchise in an arena, it is hard to replicate and grow off that success,” he said.

For designers grabbing at the reality show brass ring, the chance to gain network exposure is unparalleled. Thousands of people responded to the casting call for “Fashion Star” to nab one of the about 14 contestant spots. Ringbakk painted a picture of a possible contestant: “A mom that maybe has two kids and has been sewing in her basement for the last 20 years. Now, suddenly there is an order that could change her life. Everyone likes to watch that.”

Even for established fashion industry players hesitant to go on reality TV when it was in its infancy, the promise of publicity has been too good to pass up. When casting Second Time Around in “Fashion Hunters,” Brent Montgomery owner of Leftfield Pictures, which produced “Fashion Hunters” and the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” put the owners of the consignment shop on the phone with Gold & Silver Pawnshop in Las Vegas, which is featured on “Pawn Stars.” The pawnshop “went from 70 people a day to close to 3,000 people a day coming through,” he said. “As soon as they heard that, they were probably sold.” Montgomery added, “If you are selling fashion, and you have an opportunity as a small business to put it on Bravo, I told them it is like winning the lottery.…What producers do with these small business is make a local brand a national brand and, in some cases, an international brand.”

Like winning the lottery, the odds of getting a reality show are very low — and getting lower as the field of wannabes swells. Rachel Brill, vice president of development at Zoo Productions, producer of WE tv’s “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” said, “I like to say it is like living in L.A. and trying to become a professional A-list movie actress. It is very hard. It is like a one-in-a-million chance.” Lexton of Authentic Entertainment estimated one out of every five shows for which she shoots a sizzle reel, a short video encapsulating a probable reality show for pitching purposes, is sold to a network — and that’s a high batting average. “If somebody out there is just shopping a sizzle reel with their friends from college, their chances are more like one in a 1,000,” she said.

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