‘Project Runway’ sashays back in

Lifetime sews fashion show to lineup

Finally, the fashion police return.

After a 10-month hiatus, reality stalwart “Project Runway” arrives at 10 Thursday with the snarkiness intact but on a new network whose execs believe the series will play a vital role in extending the net’s brand.

In April 2008, producers the Weinstein Co. elected to move “Project Runway” from Bravo to Lifetime, much to the dismay of the NBC Universal cabler. The conglom sued the Weinsteins for violating its contract, and the legal wranglings kept the show on the sidelines until an agreement was worked out.

Bravo isn’t exactly wishing the show well in its new home. The cabler will take on “Runway” with “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” which has been picking up steam in its Thursday 10 p.m. slot and is the net’s top-rated program.

For Lifetime, after nearly a year of legal proceedings, “Project Runway” represents a chance to ramp up its reality programming in a way that doesn’t require selling auds on an untested product.

“Unscripted was always a challenge at Lifetime, and now it’s part of our brand extension,” Lifetime topper Andrea Wong told Daily Variety. “We’re really excited. This is something worth waiting for.”

According to Wong, reality marks the third prong in a programming strategy that includes the net’s longtime original movie franchise and scripted skeins. “Army Wives” and “Drop Dead Diva” are the net’s highest-rated dramas and hit season highs Sunday.

Wong is keepings ratings expectations in check. Not only is Bravo’s “Housewives” a force in the timeslot, but USA, which has been a ratings behemoth this summer, offers up a new episode of “Royal Pains.”

Lifetime will try to match the bar set for the premiere of season five, when 2.9 million viewers tuned in (live plus same day), and 1.8 million in the 18-49 demo.

Looking to extend the show’s awareness beyond the hour, Lifetime will air a two-hour “All-Star Challenge” prior to tonight’s premiere and then afterward, offer the half-hour “Models of the Runway” at 11 p.m., a behind-the-scenes look at the women vying for the crown this season.

“Challenge” is a one-off, but “Models” will air each Thursday.

As for how the Lifetime “Runway” will differ from the Bravo version, the answer is: not much. Judges Tim Gunn, Michael Kors and Nina Garcia are back, as is host Heidi Klum. The most noticeable difference this season is that the show was shot in Los Angeles, not Gotham. Season seven, which is already in the can, returns to New York.

“I feel like I know what the fans expect and love about the show, and that’s what we’re giving them,” said Barbara Schneeweiss, who oversees production on behalf of the Weinstein Co.

Behind the scenes, longtime producers Magical Elves (“Top Chef”) have left the show, and Bunin-Murray Prods. (“The Real World”) is on board.

Said Schneeweiss, “We’re stronger, better and pleased to be back.”

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