'Project Runway' Remains One of Reality TV's Greatest Comfort Foods

Reality TV, more than almost any other genre, lets its faded hits stick around. But most remain enjoyable long past their prime.

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For the past few years – you could quibble about exactly when it happened, though I'd say season 8 – Project Runway has existed in a strange vacuum. It continues to chug along, doing solidly in the ratings, not really in any danger of getting cancelled. Hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn have won the Best Reality Show Host Emmy two years in a row, and Project Runway's been nominated for the Best Reality Competition Series Emmy every year since 2005.
But no one talks about it. Yes, the show does fairly well on Twitter, but it's not penetrating the cultural zeitgeist in any way. Even Tom & Lorenzo, the fashion bloggers who made their bones on Runway, keep all their commentary to one post a week now.
This was the fashion show that, against all odds, once had everyone buzzing – about the personalities and especially the fashion. Today, in its 13th season, it's a pop cultural footnote, only discussed to ask "that's still on?" or "why is one of the current sponsors Red Robin?" And that was the most press Runway's gotten in ages.
These days, Project Runway is reality TV comfort food: unchallenging yet enjoyable programming a bit past its prime that isn't in any real danger of being cancelled. There's a lot of this on network and cable TV right now, and these shows deserve if not our respect, then a begrudging nod of support. Beyond Runway, here are 10 exemplary bits of comfort food still on the air.

Big Brother

Network: CBS
Start date: July 5, 2000
Number of seasons: 16
Creative peak: Seasons 2-5
​Current audience: Around 7 million viewers on average this season.
Talk about "unchallenging." There's a reason almost every season of Big Brother has been set in the summer: you've got hot people frolicking about in too little clothing and acting like idiots. (Best viewing: mute your TV.) Yet unlike The Real World, which has gotten too into the "acting like idiots" part of that equation, these contestants are actually competing towards something. They're not as good at it anymore, but watching them try is precious. Not a bad way to beat the heat, either.

Top Chef

Network: Bravo
Start date: March 8, 2006
Number of seasons: 11
Creative peak: Seasons 3-4
​Current audience: Last season's finale bowed to 1.7 million viewers.
This Project Runway-model cooking show is actually one of Bravo's biggest franchises, churning out a few different spin-offs (including the current Top Chef: Duels). While we're far from the halcyon seasons in Miami and Chicago – next season is set in Boston, which sounds like a chore already – it's still talented people cooking delectable-looking food every week. What's to hate about that?

America’s Next Top Model

Network: The CW (previously UPN)
Start date: May 20, 2003
Number of seasons cycles: 21
Creative peak: Seasons Cycles 3-4
​Current audience: Averaged 1.7 million viewers last season.
With men added to the competition equation, this show has gotten extra fun. Eye candy for everyone! We do miss the watercooler moments, but there's certainly worse ways to spend your time while watching TV. Plus, we'll always have Tiffany and Tyra.

The Bachelor(ette)

Network: ABC
Start date: The Bachelor on March 25, 2002; The Bachelorette on Jan. 8, 2003
Number of seasons: 28 total, not including spin-offs
Creative peak: Season 13 of The Bachelor; season 1 of The Bachelorette
​Current audience: Averages somewhere in the 7 million viewer range, though the finale of the last season of The Bachelor raked in 11 million.
I'm going to let my friend Margo, who watches The Bachelor and The Bachelorette religiously, explain this one. "Much like a Thanksgiving dinner table, Monday night Bachelor airings present an opportunity for my friends and I to come together. We all clear our schedules. The actual caliber of the programming is of no consequence. We're just happy to have an excuse to spend time together." Bringing friends together! Thanks, The Bachelor.


Network: CBS
Start date: May 31, 2000
Number of seasons: 28
Creative peak: According to The Wire's resident Survivor stan Joe Reid, it has "ebbs and flows," but seasons 1-3, 7-12, and 20 stand out.
​Current audience: Still chugging along at about 11 million viewers.
Survivor, more than any other show on here, still inspires passion in its audience. Still, that audience has been shrinking in recent years. But it's the oldest – and in many ways, one of the finest – of the shows on here, and it hasn't stopped entertaining us.

The Amazing Race

Network: CBS
Start date: September 5, 2001
Number of seasons: 24
Creative peak: Seasons 4-6
​Current audience: Just under or around 10 million viewers.
If you don't have anything nice to say about a show, you shouldn't say anything at all. Why has it won 10 Best Reality Competition Show Emmys what the hell I hope all of you watching this show are enjoying it. And that's all I'll say about that.

American Idol

Network: FOX
Start date: June 11, 2002
Number of seasons: 13
Creative peak: Seasons 4-5
​Current audience: About 11 million viewers – quite a drop from its 30 million peak.
One of the criteria for making this list is not being on the edge of cancellation constantly, and so some might disagree with Idol's placement here. But it's still a hit – if not a hit in its previous form – and a major component of FOX's schedule. Also, even in its twilight, with seasons full of mediocre contestants, the magic still manages to spark every once in a while. Case in point: season 13's Jena Irene.

The Biggest Loser

Network: NBC
Start date: October 19, 2004
Number of seasons: 15
Creative peak: Season 2
Current audience: About 6.5 million viewers last season.
This is the one show on this list that probably needs to leave the air, or at least make major changes. I stand with Jillian Michaels about last season's winner's controversial weight loss – it went far beyond what any sane person could think was "healthy." (There are no rule changes coming this next season.) Comfort food is great, but this veers too closely into potentially being a dangerous example for others.

Dancing with the Stars

Network: ABC
Start date: June 1, 2005
Number of seasons: 18
Creative peak: Seasons 2-3
​Current audience: The finale drew 15 million viewers last season.
There's always been something cheesy about celebrities dressing up in ball gowns to dance, but that's what made it fun! It's not the most relevant show on TV anymore, but it still draws a healthy viewership, and continues doing what made it a hit. It's been comfort food from day one.

America’s Got Talent

Network: NBC
Start date: June 21, 2006
Number of seasons: 9
Creative peak: Define "peak."
​Current audience: Surprisingly, the average for the past few seasons has been around 12 million viewers.
While this is the youngest variant of our comfort food shows, and it's never quite inspired as "good" programming, there's definitely something to its success. And in recent years, they've added Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, Mel B from the Spice Girls, and Heidi Klum as judges. It's no wonder so many viewers tune in every summer. With weird talents and a strong panel of personalities, Talent is, in many ways, the quintessential version of this trope: bland, culturally insignificant, totally empty calories.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.