Bulletin September 2006
Volume 74 | Issue 5
September 2006

Project Runway: When reality TV comes to campus

Victoria Gannon

Having a reality television show filmed at your educational institution has all the makings of a headache. Any financial compensation received is likely small compared to the amount of preparation involved—scheduling production around class schedules, ensuring that facilities are not damaged during filming, allocating space for cameras and equipment. But there is one thing an institution can gain if the television program is popular: publicity.

New School University, comprised of eight distinct yet affiliated institutions, did not know what it was getting into when it first agreed to allow a new reality television show use Parsons the New School for Design as a set. No one knew if the show would be popular, if it would be renewed beyond its first season, if it would help or hurt the institution’s image.

Luckily, “Project Runway,” which premiered on the Bravo Network in December 2004, has become a bona fide hit, with a 2005 Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Reality Competition under its belt and its third season underway. Many consider the program to be a step above other reality programming. The New York Times dubbed it “the Prada of reality television shows.”

In many ways, “Project Runway” fits the same formula as other reality television: it features a group of adults, some ruthless, some earnest, many unprepared, all vying for one grand prize. Each week, one is sent home, until the last week when a winner is chosen.

In this case, the formula is tailored for the world of fashion design. All the “Project Runway” contestants are up-and-coming fashion designers, and their challenges are related to the craft: Make a dress using only certain materials, design a lingerie line in 24 hours, refashion the clothes off your back into a high-style outfit—these are some of the tasks they have tackled. The designer left standing at the end wins an Elle Magazine photo spread featuring his or her clothes, $100,000 to start his or her own line, and prizes from the show’s various commercial sponsors, which vary from season to season.

As the show’s success solidified, the New School began to rethink and deepen its involvement with it. A July 2006 interview with Matthew Sussman, a special projects coordinator with the department of communications and external affairs at the New School, revealed a behind-the-scenes look at the reality show and its relationship with the institution. Sussman was hired during the second season of “Project Runway” to work specifically on issues related to its production.

“As it was coming back for Season 2, it was becoming an established thing,” he said. “So the university says, ‘Hey, let’s pay a little more attention to this opportunity.’”

It helped that the second season coincided with the New School’s rebranding process, during and after which the institution was particularly concerned with its new public image, emphasizing the interconnectedness of its eight institutions.

The institution is not a sponsor of the show and does not pay it, the network, or the production company, with whom it has its only formal agreement. Likewise, none of these entities pay the New School for the right to use its facilities. The production company, Magical Elves, reimburses the New School for any costs incurred during filming.

“We’re giving them this facility,” Sussman said. “Neither party is being paid for participation. The New School is being paid for expenses, but what we’re getting is association with the show for publicity. You couldn’t ask for better product placement.”

The institution’s unique relationship with the project developed out of a faculty member’s involvement, Sussman said. Tim Gunn, chair of the fashion department at Parsons, was part of “Project Runway” from its inception. “Tim had been approached to participate and he helped develop the idea for the show,” Sussman said.

Although the specifics predate Sussman’s tenure at the New School, he believes that Gunn’s participation eventually led to the decision to film the program at Parsons.

Gunn continues to have a significant on-air presence as a mentor to contestants; he takes them fabric shopping, gives pep talks, and checks in on their progress during challenges.

The institution’s contract with Magical Elves, which is affiliated with the program’s producers, specifies that “in exchange for using the facility, we’re getting publicity,” Sussman said.

“There’s an agreement to give us a presence and to establish Tim Gunn as a member of the faculty” at Parsons the New School for Design during each episode, he said. The contract includes a clause that the “signage on the building is seen, that there are certain verbal mentions of the school being made,” and that participants “identify where they are” periodically.

Although publicity opportunities make up part of the contract, a good portion of it involves less glamorous details, such as scheduling, security, and insurance. Luckily, those things have gone remarkably well, Sussman said. Filming has not disrupted classes or students, since it takes place during the summer. Security hours are extended from their normally limited summer schedule, although the level of security remains consistent with the school year.

“You can’t just walk in and out of buildings” at the New School, Sussman said. “Any building here has a security guard, who checks for IDs … It doesn’t appear to change very much” during filming.

Although the contestants’ and crew’s presence uses more electricity than if the building were empty, the amount is minimal. “All the cameras run off batteries that are charged off of regular house currents,” he said.

The primary set requires no additional installation—it is the actual work studio Parsons’ students use during the academic year. “It’s quite real, with dress forms and stations,” Sussman said. The room where contestants sew their garments together is “actually a sewing room for the department, with rows of sewing machines. The whole premise of the show is they’re supposed to work in the most typical set-up.”

In addition to the two studio rooms, the production company also uses an office space, where it sets up phones and computers and stores its camera gear. Sussman added that filming reality television requires much less equipment than a feature film would. “When you walk by the building, there are no production trucks outside. It’s self-contained.”

The building’s auditorium is the biggest space featured in “Project Runway.” It is where each episode’s runway show and judging takes place. Little is done to prepare it for the event. The runway is custom-lit for the show, but the stage is already in place, a permanent fixture used by students and faculty throughout the year.

One of the most important aspects of the contract is something that is never shown on screen. The production company’s certificate of insurance is “crucially important,” Sussman said. “There is a requirement that we are supplied with the production company’s certificate of insurance, and that it is acceptable to our lawyers.” It assures that if “anything is damaged or anyone is hurt, they’re covered,” he said.

Although Sussman hopes the institution continues its involvement with television and movie projects, the insurance requirement partially determines which ones will eventually be filmed there. “I’ve had inquiries from small independent companies who want to shoot at the New School. And I say up front. ‘We need a minimum of $1 million in insurance,’” Sussman said.

The hope is that future projects will have the same appeal as “Project Runway,” which even Sussman, a former reality-show producer, admits to watching.

“When I came to work here, they had DVDs of the first season. So I watched them, and I thought, maybe I’ll watch a few,” he said. “I put in the first disk, and I spent the whole weekend watching. I got totally hooked.”