In her knitted tank tops and shag of steel gray, Zalaznick hardly looks the role of a network executive, nor does her office, a shadow box of primary-colored kitsch, suggest the part. But she’s done a lot in her 43 years. Before coming to Bravo, she ran the Trio network; before that, she oversaw programming and development for VH1; and before that, she was a producer of independent films, including Kids, Safe, and Girls Town. Her instincts are shrewd, her manner unfussy and direct. She says that what crystallized Bravo’s programming philosophy for her wasn’t Project Runway so much as Bravo’s previous smash hit, Queer Eye. “We had to define what pop culture meant on Bravo,” says Zalaznick. “And what pop culture, as defined by us, has come to mean is five affinity groups: fashion, food, beauty, design, and pop. It’s not coincidental that the five guys in Queer Eye each represented one of those things.”
Nor is it coincidental that four out of five of Bravo’s competition reality shows each represent one of those things. When Zalaznick first got to Bravo in May 2004, Project Runway was already in the works. The series originated in the offices of the Weinstein Company, and when Heidi Klum said she was interested in hosting the show, that sealed it—the company soon found Project Runway a home at Bravo, which was already beginning to attract an urban, high-income audience with Queer Eye. Bravo executives came up with the idea for Top Chef as soon as it was clear Runway was a hit, and last year, they added two more competition reality shows, Top Design and Shear Genius. Though the last two had respectable ratings, they were critical bombs. “Here’s my crazy biggest note about Top Design,” says Zalaznick. “Where’s the carpet? Didn’t the Pacific Design Center have a rug store? It drove me insane. But the general problem is the white-box problem”—that the contestants were forced to decorate identical vanilla spaces each week—“and that’s a great producer’s challenge.”
Zalaznick may have added that neither Top Design nor Shear Genius was produced by Magical Elves, the company that so deftly produces Chef and Runway. But more to the point, Bravo may be discovering what so many networks do when they attempt to endlessly replicate a programming formula: It works a little less well each time. For Love or Money wasn’t as good as Joe Millionaire; Law & Order: Criminal Intent isn’t as good as Law & Order. In the future, says Zalaznick, she’d be more inclined to focus on cultivating new programs in each of the five original Queer Eye categories, rather than introducing a slew of new competition reality programs. Of course, Bravo just announced a new series called Make Me a Supermodel, a flagrant rip-off of America’s Next Top Model. Sometimes old habits die hard.
In addition to looking for new programming ideas, Zalaznick is trying to make the most of her existing franchises. Back in June, the network announced it’d be teaming up with Pangea Management, a sixteen-month-old company based in Santa Monica, to help manage the careers of future contestants (with the notable exception of those from Project Runway, still owned by the Weinstein Company). The arrangement may raise the specter of the old studio days, when movie stars didn’t own their careers, but Zalaznick makes no apologies for it. “Everything associated with Bravo isn’t just driving a rating,” she says. “It’s driving a business.”
Before they enter these competitions, Bravo’s reality show contestants already forfeit a fair number of creative freedoms, signing away their life-story rights in perpetuity, agreeing not to appear on other networks without Bravo’s permission for a full year after their shows have aired. They also surrender the goods they create during the competitions (though in Project Runway’s case, the proceeds go to the Weinstein Company, which in turn go to charity). Laura Bennett, the elegant matriarch from Season Three, is the only former contestant I could find who bought back some of her work—her husband spent $13,000 on projectrunway.com for seven items from her Bryant Park collection, under the handle “Bad Daddy.”
After enduring the rigors of the shows, however—the sleeplessness, the loneliness, the intense public scrutiny—many of the contestants believe, with some justification, that they’re entitled to the financial rewards the world offers them without Bravo’s intervention, especially when many of them were responsible for making the shows so interesting to watch. When Laura, hugely popular with fans, failed to notify the network she’d signed a contract to host a style show on MSN.com, they called and demanded an explanation. So she pointed out: “What do you have to offer me?’ ” (And now she’s in talks with Bravo about doing something for its Website and iVillage.) When Harold, still under contract, was asked to participate in a Top Chef cook-off between contestants from Seasons One and Two, he complained about it to the New York Post, which took Bravo by surprise. “But I was like, This shouldn’t come as a surprise,” he explains to me. “I let them know that I didn’t want to do it. I had a million things going on.” And Jay has the fewest qualms about offending Bravo of all. “The only gig that Lauren Zalaznick ever offered me after the show,” he says, “was to decorate her daughter’s lunch box for some charity thing for her school.” (Zalaznick says she has no recollection of this request.)
More than any former Bravo contestant, it’s Jay who has fought the bitterest fight for his intellectual property, though it wasn’t with Bravo itself. After he won the first season of Project Runway, he discovered that the Weinstein Company would forever own a 10 percent stake in his brand—and he didn’t yet even have a brand—if he chose to take their $100,000 prize. He turned it down. The company has since dropped the clause. But the fight left Jay without any money, and it left Bravo with an embittered winner—and one whose orientation wasn’t necessarily all that commercial to begin with. “I think the problem Bravo has,” says Colicchio, “is that they lose credibility when Jay doesn’t do anything.”
Zalaznick points out that the new arrangement with Pangea—optional, not required—would help address exactly the kind of confusion that insta-celebrities from Bravo face, providing career guidance, helping sort wheat from chaff, negotiating deals that’d keep them in the public eye. “Reality shows and the characters that inhabit them all run a risk of much too short a half-life,” she says. “And that’s where a lot of these folks can be saved, not to be overly dramatic about it.”