After 18 seasons, America's Next Top Model, one of the most successful reality shows of all time, abruptly fired three central cast members and dramatically altered the competition's format. Why?
1. Why Things Changed on 'Top Model'
Why did it come to this? Why did ANTM producers feel thy had to make such dramatic changes? After all, America's Next Top Model was once CW's top rated show; as late as Cycle 18 it reportedly drew more advertising dollars than any other CW show, it has transformed Tyra Banks into a media mogul, it launched the careers of a dozen models and has spawned 20 international versions.
All that may be true, but as Project Runway's host Heidi Klum could have warned Top Model, in fashion, "one day you're in, the next day you're out." Advertisers, producers, even viewers aren't satisfied with past success. We all want to know, "what have you done for me lately?"
And lately, things in Modelland haven't looked so rosy. Especially in the all important realm of ratings. For the first nine seasons, ANTM regularly attracted over five million viewers. Then it dropped to four million for three cycles, then three million. Cycles 16 and 17 garnered about 2.5 million each and Cycle 18 plummeted to a mere 1.5 million.
Why have Top Model's ratings gone into a free fall? Well, all TV series, whether they are reality based or scripted shows, struggle to keep audiences coming back year after year. So some of it may just be natural processes that all shows have to contend with.
But some of the responsibility sits on Tyra Banks' shoulders for taking the reality competition into scripted TV waters by creating strange alter egos, relying on special effects and--for some reason--mimicking the over-the-top performances of RuPaul's Drag Race.
In no small way, Top Model has slowly become a parody of itself, exchanging the real drama of naive young women facing the challenging fashion industry for manufactured drama of a fantasy land where supermodels are super heroes.
Likewise, Banks' decision to devote one cycle to a "British invasion," in which former competitors from the British version of Top Model competed against novice American models seemed to backfire: rather than gaining viewers, the cycle lost another million, possibly because the whole thing seemed patently unfair to begin with (with odds stacked against the Americans); or perhaps American viewers are interested in American contestants, not stand-offish Brits who might as well be speaking gibberish as Kings English.
Regardless of why ratings have dropped, those numbers translate directly to dollars because advertisers are willing to pay higher fees to reach more viewers. As the reverse is also true, Top Model's advertisers must have been getting pretty pissed about shelling out big bucks for fewer and fewer customer eyeballs.
2. What has Changed on 'ANTM'
So it's not surprising that some of America's Next Top Model's long-term partners (especially CoverGirl) pulled their advertising and left ANTM producers scrambling to change the direction of their ship and try to prevent it from completely capsizing.
Eliminating three cast members must have saved ANTM tens of thousands of dollars in salaries, as they were able to turn around and hire younger, lesser known (aka cheaper) replacements.
Top Model is also hoping to increase viewer involvement with the show by allowing fans to vote and have a say in which contestants are eliminated. (The power hasn't switched to viewers, but judges now include a social media score in their calculations.)
There are also changes in the prize packages, including the loss of CoverGirl's $100,000 contract for the season's winner. Challenge winners--who used to receive various designer swag--now receive $10,000 in "scholarship monies" and a night in the Tyra Suite.
While the $10,000 sounds great, the only model who will actually receive her scholarship money is the girl who wins the entire season. And the Tyra suite, even if stocked with ANTM-sponsored products, doesn't feel like it really compares to diamonds or designer shoes.
3. Who Wins?
So, who comes out a winner from the changes that Top Model has undergone? Naturally the new staff: judge Rob Evans, social media correspondent BryanBoy and photo shoot director Johnny Wujek have benefited. But who else?
- P'Trique (pictured with Tyra): After trying to get on the show for several seasons, the internet sensation and star of viral video Sh*t Fashion Girls Say has a recurring guest appearance on ANTM Cycle 19, which could always turn into a full time gig. As a bearded man who wears dresses, P'Trique could also fill the gender-bending void left by Miss J. Alexander's departure. Beyond his personal gain, if P'Trique is seen as a positive addition to Top Model we can expect to see even more YouTube personalities popping up on reality TV.
- Social Media: First, the revised Top Model grants new powers to social media by hiring BryanBoy to read comments on the show and allowing fans to vote on their favorite models (and photos). Then Tyra Banks further elevates the medium by peppering episodes with such comments as "I can't wait to see what social media has to say about this" or "Social media didn't like your braids." In doing so, Banks seems to be treating social media as if it were one unified voice not a fickle and diverse audience emboldened by anonymity to say frequently vile and hateful things we would never utter in person.
- Tech Savvy Top Model Fans: With options to vote and comment on models, viewers have more power than ever before. Viewers can also create and post their own YouTube video replies, some of which may air on future episodes.
4. Who Loses?
Who Loses? (Aside from Nigel Barker, J. Alexander and Jay Manuel--pictured--of course.)
- Supermodels: In the past, America's Next Top Model has been home of not one but two supermodels--Tyra Banks and a second judge (Janice Dickinson, Twiggy, Paulina Porizkova) but don't expect to see others join the show. Now that budgets are tight and no one wants redundancy, the female supermodel has been replaced by a hot, young male model--judge, Rob Evans (rumored to be Tyra's boyfriend). Evans may have less to offer as a mentor than a female supermodel but he'll make up for it in added sex appeal. After all, ANTM already has hot girls and hot gays--now they've got a hot guy, too. Added bonus, they have a built in male model for photo shoots.
- Fashion Magazines & Editors: In addition to supermodels, previous cycles saw the judging panel balanced out by fashion magazine editors like Nolé Marin (Elle) and André Leon Talley (Vogue), but from here on out ANTM will likely stick with bloggers like new social media correspondent Bryanboy. Not only are bloggers younger and cheaper, they reflect the broader cultural shift from print publications to online outlets.
- The Top Model winner: Instead of getting a cover and fashion spread in Vogue Italia Cycle 19's winner will get a spread in the far less prestigious (if hipper) magazine Nylon. Furthermore, CoverGirl, which for 18 cycles awarded winners a $100,000 contract is no longer collaborating with Top Model. While the ANTM winner will do advertising for Nine West and Smashbox Cosmetics, previous winners could look forward to CoverGirl and advertising campaigns with additional brands like Ford and WalMart.
- The ANTM contestants: Not only are prizes smaller but the models have lost the advantage of having genuinely experienced and concerned mentors who take a real interest in helping these young women find success in a difficult and challenging field. Plus, they are being judged by people with less expertise (especially now that viewers--and anyone browsing the internet--can vote; even though we have little or no idea what it really takes to successfully climb to the top of the modeling world. At best, we know what it takes to win Top Model).
- ANTM Fans: We may have more power, but is it worth what we've lost? Personally, I don't think so.
5. What it Means for the Future
America's Next Top Model has held a unique position: as one of the most successful reality shows of all time it has served as a tent pole to CW's programming and has impacted the fashion industry and the culture at large (not to mention the international community now that it is viewed in 100s of markets world wide).
By recruiting young African American women and other contestants who were escaping difficult backgrounds, Tyra Banks made Top Model one of the most equitable and culturally diverse reality shows out there. By hiring her gay friends as cast members and accepting lesbian and transgender contestants, Banks also increased LGBT visibility and acceptance.
With such a wide range of influence, the success or failure of America's Next Top Model will ripple outward and be felt in multiple industries.
In particular, other reality shows will be watching ANTM closely to see whether these changes succeed in reversing its declining ratings (which, so far, it doesn't seem to be doing). If it does turn things around, the lesson will be clear and other shows may follow Top Model's lead. But if it fails the road forward will be less clear and all eyes will return to American Idol, another aging show that is hoping dramatic changes and new blood will revive its sagging ratings (although, to be fair, Idol still brings in 20+ million viewers; its crime is slipping from its long-held #1 position).
The world of fashion is also monitoring Top Model's progress, especially whether the decision to discard ties to fashion magazines in exchange for social media finds success and further erodes the power that was once wielded by fashion editors.
Models and model-wanna-bes also have a stake in this fight. So far, America's Next Top Model has been the only successful reality modeling competition. Make me a Supermodel, Project Runway's spin off Models of the Runway and a half dozen other shows have come and gone, leaving ANTM the only survivor. It is also one of the only routes a disadvantaged young woman can take to gain entry into the highly competitive professional modeling world. Tyra Banks also pushed the boundaries of who could be a professional model, by drawing attention to the strict physical requirements and offering short and "plus sized" (aka healthy and curvy) women a chance at being named America's next top model.
In the end, we'll all just have to wait and see how the changes on Top Model impact ratings and how the ultimate success or failure of the brand impacts the various pies it has fingers in.
In the meantime, you can catch the new America's Next Top Model Fridays, 8/7PM Central on CW.