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Fabulous Project Runway Tainted by Tsunami of Product Placement and Tacky Cross-Promotion

Bravo’s Project Runway, arguably the most addictive, compelling reality series on television, hit the skids recently when the WWE Divas – the Playboy Bunny-esque wrestlers who worm their way into men’s hearts on USA Network’s Raw - appeared on the show. 

Project Runway’s contestants were introduced to the Divas as they slithered around a wrestling ring.  Their challenge: create an outfit that could be worn in the ring.

Since both Bravo and USA are sister networks owned by NBC Universal, this ill-fitting concept appears to be some NBCU executive’s (or producer’s) idea of clever cross-promotion.

“How much can you really do with slutty, stripper wrestling outfits?” grumbled my gen-y daughter, a devotee of Project Runway who has never missed an episode.

(Watch the aspiring designers struggle with their Diva assignment below:)

In last night’s restropective of the season so far, even Tim Gunn, Project Runway’s courtly on-air mentor, disclosed that the judges had a “difficult time with the challenge.” 

As one of the Divas exited the runway, judge and designer Michael Kors began to laugh uncontrollably in the outtakes. “The whole thing I thought was hysterically funny…I’ve never cracked up, this is the first time!” he admitted.

When the contestants were asked to name the worst design of the season so far, contestant Sweet-P immediately fessed up.  It was the bikini and robe she fashioned for her demanding Diva who insisted on more rhinestones, more stars, more feathers.

The classy, urbane Gunn must have been beside himself - although if he was you’d never know it.  Afterwards, he trotted his hopefuls over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for some inspiration on their next challenge.  It was as if the producers (or someone) knew they had to do something – and quick! – to make up for the lapse in taste and judgment.

But it’s not just the cross-promotion that detracts.  The tsunami of product placement is all a bit much.

I thought it was just me but newteevee.com’s  Jackson West actually counted.  Here’s what he had to say…

….the whole show is basically one big advertisement….the product placement never ends. Sometimes subliminal, sometimes in your face, but there in nearly every shot…

How much product placement can you cram into 40 minutes, between commercials?….I did sit there with my trigger finger on the pause button so that I wouldn’t miss a single logo or sponsor name drop.

The observant Jackson counted an average of 2.5 product placements per minute.  Yes, 2.5 per minute.  He wrote up the list in detail. 

ETA:  Many bloggers noted the awkward Blockbuster Total Access mention, just another case in point… TV Squad: "By the way, the Blockbuster Total Access placement was real subtle, Bravo."

Eric3000: "WWF or WTF? Fine; so it’s really WWE. But the question still stands: WTF?…Wait, Blockbuster Total what?"

andDave White of The Advocate snarks: "….Then it’s back to the workroom for a Blockbuster Total Access product placement moment.  It’s Blockbuster’s new Netflix-ish thing, product placement moment…..Intrigued, I go to Blockbuster.com to see what sort of titles they offer.  Oh, look, I can’t get ‘ShortbusorShowgirls.’ That’s because Blockbuster thinks it knows what’s too naughty for you to watch. So they don’t offer NC-17 titles.  Eat it, jerks.  I got Netflix."

Miraculously, Project Runway emerges from this ad inundation relatively intact because of the show’s robust premise.  “It’s one of the few reality shows on television where people actually create something tangible,” observed my daughter.

And because of Tim Gunn.

This show is saved, saved!, rescued, redeemed by Tim Gunn.  Tim Gunn, thank god, is no Simon Cowell.  He mentors relentlessly, giving mid-stream course corrections and gentle supportive pep talks to his flock. 

What a stark contrast it was last night to jump directly from American Idol and Simon Cowell’s moody venom to Tim Gunn’s gracious honesty.  (Is Simon off his feed or something?  He seemed cranky last night, even for Simon.)

But NBC Universal is notorious for clumsy product placement.  I’ve already complained about NBC (the broadcast network) beating the audience senseless with the Nissan Rogue placement in Heroes.  

NBC Network seems determined to stay on track, doing what doesn’t work harder.

Ben Silverman, the other co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, who will travel the country with [co-chairman of NBC Entertainment Marc] Graboff making the presentations to advertisers, has been an advocate of linking advertisers to shows. He made a deal with Ford Motor Company, for example, to supply the car used in a remake of the 1980s series “Knight Rider.” A version of that aired Sunday night on NBC as a made-for-TV movie, and Mr. Silverman said Tuesday that its ratings success makes it a likely addition to NBC’s schedule when it is announced in April.  (NY Times, "Ending Tradition, NBC Dismisses Fall Debuts,"  Feb. 20, ’08)

Oh, joy…

Bottom line: Project Runway’s product placement ought to be toned down a notch.  As for the shameless cross-pollination with USA Network’s Raw at the expense of this signature series, it was a scrape-the-bottom-of-the-barrel moment for NBC Universal.