Host Heidi Klum and judge Michael Kors will return for the sixth season of… (NBC Universal )
NEW YORK — WEDNESDAY'S episode of “Project Runway” begins the drawn-out reveal of who will be the next winner of the popular fashion design competition: Jerell, Kenley, Korto or Leanne.
But the more pressing question hanging over the show is this: After "Runway's" fifth season concludes Oct. 15 on Bravo, how long will viewers have to wait for its return?
The future of the reality show is in limbo, the subject of a bitter lawsuit between Bravo's parent company, NBC Universal, and the show's producer, the Weinstein Co.
"I think they're going to be sad if they have to wait," host and executive producer Heidi Klum said of the program's fans. "And, of course, we will be sad too. But we're all sitting in the same boat. We don't really know what is going to happen."
Executive producer Harvey Weinstein was planning to show the next season of "Project Runway" on Lifetime Television, which struck a lucrative deal for the rights to the program. But NBC Universal sued, claiming the Weinstein Co. breached its contract by shopping the show to another network. Two weeks ago, a New York state Supreme Court judge granted its request for a preliminary injunction to stop Lifetime from airing or promoting the show or its new spinoff, "Models of the Runway."
While the parties haggle in court, production is nearly complete on the sixth season, set in Los Angeles instead of New York, with guest judges such as Lindsay Lohan, Eva Longoria and Rebecca Romijn assessing the work of a new batch of designers.
But barring a settlement agreement, it appears highly unlikely that "Runway" will be back on the air in January in time for a finale at New York Fashion Week in February, as Lifetime had hoped. That means it would be delayed until at least late summer so the finalists could show their collections at fashion week in September. (In a statement, the network said it is confident the series will eventually land on its schedule, adding that, "regardless of the legal outcome, Lifetime is well-positioned for growth.")
If NBC prevails, the situation is more complicated. It's all but certain that the show wouldn't go back to Bravo, the network on which it became a hit. That's in no small part because Weinstein has "a particular dislike" for Lauren Zalaznick, the NBC Universal executive who oversees Bravo, as Judge Richard B. Lowe noted in his Sept. 26 ruling. Before their negotiations ended, NBC Universal and Weinstein were discussing airing "Runway" on a different network, perhaps even as part of NBC's prime-time schedule.
The bottom line: Until the suit is resolved, the upcoming two episodes of the show may be the last that "Runway" aficionados will see for a while.
It's a jarring interruption of what has been a stellar ride for "Runway," one of cable television's great success stories.
When the program launched in late 2004, even its producers had some doubts about its premise.
"When we started, we thought, 'Who is going to sit around and watch a bunch of people sewing?' " recalled executive producer Jane Lipsitz.
But the program's inside pass to the fiercely competitive fashion world proved a major draw, as did the outsized personalities who vie to be crowned the country's "next great designer."
"If somebody told me you have 24 hours to make a dress out of candy wrappers, plants or car parts, I'd curl up in the fetal position," said executive producer Jane Cha. "To see these designers make these amazing creations in such a short amount of time with pretty strict parameters never ceases to wow people."
"Runway" winners have become celebrities; their catchphrases -- such as Season 4 winner Christian Siriano's "fierce!" -- pop culture argot.
A singular, dominant character has not emerged this season, but there have been plenty of provocative participants, including Kenley, a 1950s-style designer whose defensive sarcasm offended not only the other contestants but also the judges and Tim Gunn, the program's avuncular mentor.
"I will say, the editing is kind to everybody," Gunn said dryly.
For Bravo, "Project Runway" helped power its rise as a destination for a young and affluent audience. By far the most-watched program on the cable channel, ratings for the show are at an all-time high this season, averaging 3.981 million viewers each episode.
"It is the gold standard," said Frances Berwick, general manager of Bravo Media. "It has been very influential for us and many other networks as well."
Competition shows that explore the creative process, such as "Top Chef," "Shear Genius" and "Top Design," are now the cornerstone of Bravo's schedule.
The end of the program's run on Bravo is especially poignant for the duo of Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth, whose company Magical Elves oversaw the show's daily production. In May, they signed a deal to produce other projects for NBC and are not working on the sixth season for Lifetime. (That's being produced by Bunin-Murray, the company behind "The Real World" and "The Simple Life.")