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

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 There are new hosts this time around — previous Emmy winners Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn have been replaced by Karlie Kloss and former series winner Christian Siriano.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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • TV News Roundup: Netflix Drops Trailer

    TV News Roundup: Netflix Drops Trailer for Ryan Murphy's 'The Politician' (Watch)

    In today’s TV news roundup, Netflix has drops the first trailer for “The Politician,” and “Killing Eve” adds two to its cast for season 3.  CASTING Harriet Walter and Danny Sapani, both alums of “The Crown,” are set to join the cast of “Killing Eve” for its third season. British writer Suzanne Heathcote, whose past credits include [...]

  • Lady Gaga

    Variety Earns 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Award Nominations

    Variety has received 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie award nominations for its coverage of the entertainment industry over the past year. The awards gala, which will take place at The Hilton Midtown in New York City on Oct. 30, celebrates publications that have demonstrated impressive investigative journalism, in addition to thoughtful digital and print design. [...]

  • Disneyland

    Disney Shares Slip Amid Reported Whistleblower Allegations of Inflated Revenue

    Sandra Kuba, a former senior financial analyst for Disney’s revenue operations unit, says she has filed a series of whistleblower tips with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that the entertainment conglomerate repeatedly and systematically overstated its revenue for years, according to a MarketWatch report, by as much as $6 billion in a single [...]

  • Bob Bakish Joe Ianniello

    ViacomCBS Sets Board Members; Bob Bakish, Joe Ianniello New Deals Disclosed

    ViacomCBS has unveiled the 13 members of its board of directors and details of new employment contracts for president-CEO Bob Bakish and CBS chairman-CEO Joe Ianniello. The disclosure came Monday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, six days after Viacom and CBS at long last set an all-stock merger agreement valued at [...]

  • Carrie Underwood, left, and Reba McEntire

    CMAs Make Hosting Change: Brad Paisley Exits, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire Are In

    The CMA Awards have had the most consistent hosting situation of any music awards show in television, but 11 years after installing Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood as the reliable faces of the telecast, even ABC and the Country Music Association have decided it’s time for a switch. Come Nov. 13, Underwood will return for [...]

  • Ava Max iHeartRadio Wango Tango, Portraits,

    Megan Thee Stallion, CNCO, Ava Max to Perform at VMAs Pre-show

    CNCO, Megan Thee Stallion and “Sweet but Psycho” singer Ava Max (pictured) have been added to the performer lineup at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The three will take the stage during the VMAs’ red carpet pre-show, hosted by Terrence J and Nessa. Zara Larsson will join the two hosts as a special correspondent. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content