'Project Runway' saga isn't pretty, but cable biz staring

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Not even a catwalk catfight could prove as riveting as the behind-the-scenes sideshow that enveloped "Project Runway" last week.

With NBC Universal contesting in court the move of the unscripted series from its Bravo home to rival Lifetime, the TV industry has a war on it hands worthy of its own reality show.

But with all the attention on the boldfaced names battling over "Runway" -- Harvey Weinstein and Jeff Zucker -- there's a deeper shift of cable's aligned forces only true programming wonks can appreciate.

Picture ABC losing "Grey's Anatomy" -- that's what Bravo faces with the loss of "Runway," one of its longtime hits. While the network is no one-trick pony, possessing one of cable's deeper benches, "Runway" clearly was one of its marquee attractions.

Underlining the loss was the unfortunate timing of NBC Uni's obligatory pre-upfront ratings news release for the cable entertainment division. The unintended effect: touting just how key "Runway" was to Bravo's fortunes.

A better comparison than "Grey's" could be offered by more recent TV history. Think back to 2001 when "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" switched channels from the WB Network to UPN. The loss of the former network's signature hit spelled the death knell for a once-mighty brand.

"Runway" actually could end up being the second series to jump from NBC Uni to a Disney-owned property, given that sitcom "Scrubs" is likely on the move from NBC to ABC next season.

The "Runway" fracas also might bolster Weinstein and Zucker's reputations as blustery tough guys, but this fight also is meaningful for executives that might not make headlines but are royalty within cable. The big winner has to be Lifetime CEO Andrea Wong, who has slowly been doing the programming equivalent of a facelift on the grandma of networks. She couldn't rightfully take credit for the network's latest hit, "Army Wives," because it was developed before her reign, but this one's on her.

And what of Oxygen? NBC Uni's latest acquisition now has to face off directly against its biggest competitor with an asset it brought to power. Ouch.

But before everyone assumes hat "Runway" will instantly take Lifetime to new heights, it's worth remembering that "Buffy" didn't exactly reverse UPN's misfortunes. "Buffy" already was five years old at that point, a mature age for a scripted series though by no means aged. That said, it's worth considering that "Runway" already has four years under its belt, and unscripted shows often age faster than scripted.

Switching networks will be the true test of time for "Runway," which just might be the kind of franchise that has legs longer than Heidi Klum. Last month, the Season 4 finale topped the previous year's ending by 9% in the 18-49 demographic, and the entire season run was up about the same. That's a healthy sign.

But if it's a false positive, maybe Bravo doesn't have that much to fret over. Think how quickly its former signature hit, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," melted down after running hot for a season or two. And recall that when Bravo pulled its own network switcheroo with HBO's "Project Greenlight," it didn't exactly cruise to the finish line.

What's most fascinating about this "Runway" saga is how it gives the lie to cable's most cherished principle: the power of the brand. Execs pretend that every show on their lineup is like a different page drawn from the same playbook, but look how easy it was in this case to simply staple "Runway" into the Lifetime lineup. Whether cable's grand dame can successfully trade its orthopedic shoes for Jimmy Choos, only time can tell.
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