From ‘The Masked Singer’ to ‘Project Runway,’ Unscripted Series Pull Out All Stops to Make a Splash

Project Runway Masked Singer
Courtesy of Bravo/Fox

The growth of American unscripted television shows no signs of slowing down, with imported formats such as Fox’s “The Masked Singer” and re-energized long-standing staples such as Bravo’s “Project Runway,” competing with stalwart series (think “The Amazing Race,” “Top Chef” and “The Voice”) for ratings and awards glory. With so many shows in the race, competition for the few spots on the Emmy ballot has become that much more cutthroat.

“This is our first year on air with Fox and I hope we break through the clutter of all of these existing franchises. It’s just hard to do that,” says “The Masked Singer” executive producer Craig Plestis.

The show relied on mystery over big-name draws, as celebrities hid behind giant masks as they performed popular music numbers. It was a ratings and social-media sensation in its debut season. The series premiere at the beginning of January drew more than 9 million total live viewers, and that number increased to almost 11.5 million total live viewers for the finale episode less than two months later. The buzz around guessing what celebrities were taking part in the singing competition was constant, as was the discussion over the elaborate costumes they donned.

“The one thing I think we have going for us is we’re fresh and different and slightly bizarre,” says Plestis. “I think that’s our calling card. We’re not safe TV in any which way, and I think that might help us more than other traditional shows.”

Meanwhile, longtime nominee “Project Runway” is back in the race in a slightly new way: The flagship fashion design competition series returned to Bravo after a nine-year run on Lifetime. There are new hosts this time around — previous Emmy winners Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn have been replaced by Karlie Kloss and former series winner Christian Siriano. The format has also been given a facelift to speak to the more modern times.

“It really is more the democratization of fashion because of all the different platforms,” says executive producer Jane Lipsitz. “Entrepreneurial designers were able to distribute their fashion and designs on multiple platforms, through Instagram and flash sales. When we first produced ‘Runway,’ that really wasn’t an option. It was much more focused in terms of the path to success.”

And because of both new technology and an increasing number of similar series all vying for the same audience attention, some productions have felt the need to get more creative in the way they present even the most familiar elements of a series, from testimonials to judges’ critiques. In the case of “Project Runway,” Lipsitz notes, it was important to make the 17th season “feel more cinematic,” as well as “grounded and authentic in the real world.

“Fashion is beautiful, and the show should look beautiful,” she says. “That was a really simple principle that we built the new look of the show around.”

However, for other series, such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which won the competition program statue last year, staying true to the principles with which it launched is more important than new trends or spectacles.

“I just love that we’re able to tell human stories and bring people together,” says “Drag Race” executive producer Tom Campbell.

The 11th season of the VH1 drag queen series expanded its inclusive storytelling by featuring the show’s first Muslim contestant, Mercedes Iman Diamond, as well as Yvie Oddly, who lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

“It’s really about a very human experience, and people overcoming their past and finding their tribe, and expressing themselves in a work of art. I think that’s pretty remarkable to everybody who watches.”