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Lifetime hopes to get fierce with 'Project Runway'

August 20, 2009 |  1:44 pm

Almost 16 months after Lifetime Television struck a deal to snag the fashion reality hit "Project Runway" from Bravo the show will finally debut in its new home tonight.

A lot is riding on this for Lifetime, which needs "Project Runway" and its stars Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum to bring in a big young audience for its investment to pay off. According to Nielsen Media Research, Lifetime's prime-time audience has fallen in the last six years from an average of 1.7 million viewers in 2004 to 1.2 million this year, a drop of almost 30%. Among women ages 18 to 49 during the same period, the drop is 33% and for women ages 25 to 54 Lifetime is down 37%. While the network has had some recent successes with "Drop Dead Diva" and the drama "Army Wives," its median age is still hovering around 50.

So can one show heading into its sixth season turn everything around? Probably not, but it's a start. During its last two seasons on Bravo, "Project Runway" has drawn more viewers than Lifetime's prime-time averageRUNWAY2of the last few years. Its season five premiere took in almost 3 million people. No wonder NBC and Bravo were willing to put up such a huge fight to try to keep the show from moving.

Besides heavy promotion for the return of "Project Runway," Lifetime is also making it available online, something Bravo was unable to do in its deal. PaidContent's Staci D. Kramer broke news today that full episodes will be available at on the Saturday following the Thursday episode. It's the only place online to find the show, Kramer notes, since Lifetime isn't making it available on iTunes or other sites and outlets.

The cash-strapped Weinstein Co., which ended up paying millions to NBC in order to take it to Lifetime, also has some risks in the move. "Project Runway" used to be made by a production company called Magical Elves. But since Magical Elves does other shows with NBC and Bravo, the show is now produced by reality kings Bunim/Murray ("The Real World"), a company that's known to be quite expensive.

While the dog days of August may seem like an odd time to premiere such a big bet, Lifetime was obliged to launch "Project Runway" now as part of the settlement with NBC, people familiar with the matter said. That may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. After all, the competition is a little lighter and fewer people are taking vacations this summer because of the weak economy. Last week, AMC's "Mad Men" had record ratings in its season three premiere. 

Ironically, after all the fighting between NBC and Lifetime and Weinstein Co. over "Project Runway," the Peacock network may end up still profiting from the program. It's in talks with Lifetime's parents about merging some of their cable networks (which also includes A&E) into one entity.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: "Project Runway" stars Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum. Credit: Mike Yarish / Lifetime Networks