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Reality Survivors

Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Is it possible that the much-maligned realm of reality TV, which brought us the sophomoric The Real Gilligan’s Island, the not-bad-enough-to-be-good The Anna Nicole Show and The Biggest Loser, is emerging with more culturally refined fare? The answer is a resounding . . . not entirely (see: The Apprentice). But if it were to, it would likely be due to the efforts of a couple of Magical Elves and the shows emerging from their charmed Los Angeles workshop.

Executive producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz are the heads of the above-mentioned company, which has produced the last two seasons of Project Greenlight (the “C’mon gang, let’s make a movie” reality show fronted by benevolent Hollywood insiders Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) — and the fashion-oriented sensation Project Runway (Survivor with fabric shears), fronted by benevolent fashion insiders Heidi “Auf Wiederschauen” Klum and Tim “I don’t think that outfit’s there yet” Gunn. Shows like this, and their brand-new Top Chef, have raised reality TV’s bar a few tasty notches, launched a few careers in the arts and even elevated the genre’s alternative-lifestyle characters. (Admit it, Santino is a far more empowered gay dude than the creepy, recently indicted dude from the first season of Survivor!)

The two met in the late ’90s when Lipsitz, then an exec at VH1, hired Cutforth to produce the show Bands on the Run. An Emmy nomination later, the duo decided to combine forces, form a company and develop their own shows. They were soon brought on to do season two (and eventually three) of the bold, but short-lived, Project Greenlight. Now, along with their Emmy-nominated Project Runway, they also have the Last Comic Standing series and the spanking culinary competition Top Chef.

Part of their advantage as a team is that they got into the game early on. “Bands on the Run was a little before its time — we were sort of into [reality TV] before it became such a boom,” says Lipsitz. Being a pioneer had its disadvantages, though, says Cutforth. ”We just had to learn it all on the spot.”

To make shows work, both ended up drawing on related past experiences. Jane had worked on the music-based series Fanclub, which produced some of the first footage Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky would use in their feature-length Metallica-gets-therapized documentary Some Kind of Monster. And Cutforth had worked on the original British Survivor concept. He admits he never thought it would work. “I had absolutely no idea how you could ever produce a show like that.” Neither did ABC, which passed on it. The show was bought a couple of years later, and, as Cutforth says, “It kicked off this boom.”

And now, Magical Elves may well be here to save reality TV from throwing itself off its own island.


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