Reality Check: Dan Cutforth On What Keeps ‘Top Chef’ Sharp, Cutting Through The Clutter & What’s Next

Reality Check is a Deadline feature series covering the players, programs and trends in reality television.

Dan Cutforth was already a reality TV veteran with some time spent developing Survivor when he started Magical Elves with Jane Lipsitz in 2001. Since then the Brit-born producer has charged forward with Bands On The Run for VH1, Project Greenlight, the Peabody winning Project Runway and of course Top Chef. The Bravo cooking competition show took the Reality Competition Program Emmy in 2010, breaking The Amazing Race’s 7-year winning streak. A wide reaching franchise now and undoubtedly one of the reasons the UK’s Tinopolis Group acquired Elves earlier this yearTop Chef certainly rates as a contender this Emmys. In that vein, Cutforth reveals his state of mind this Emmy season, how the genre has evolved and how he and Lipsitz keep Top Chef cooking.

DEADLINE: So Dan, what do you think the current state of Reality TV is?
DAN CUTFORTH: I think it’s interesting how hard it is to break through with a great, new show now, and I think this is something that’s been true probably for the last, maybe, three to five years. I think when you look at the current state of reality TV, at least on the mainstream level, the shows that tend to be more successful have been around for a while. It’s difficult today to show the audience something they haven’t seen before, and I think that’s what tends to be the secret to any great, big reality hit.

DEADLINE: You were around in the early days, working on Survivor – how do you see the genre having changed since then?
CUTFORTH: Well, I think there’s been an evolution since Survivor and others first debuted. I always like to say that in the early days of reality TV, the diamonds were just sort of lying around on the surface of the Earth and you could just pick them up and put them out there. Now, you have to mine really deep to find something new, different, and exciting.

DEADLINE: How do you mean?
CUTFORTH: In the early days, all these different types of things were being tried. Like, for example, almost at very similar times, a show like The Bachelor and a show like Temptation Island came along, completely different approaches to the idea of relationship shows, but really revolutionary in their own way. Then over time it kind of got to a point where there was such a glut of programing, and I think we’re still at that place. Now it’s so hard to break through the clutter. It’s so hard to put something out there that feels different.

I think it’s really hard to say now what makes a show kind of sink or swim, and what creates longevity. For instance, I think that Survivor is a very well produced show. It’s very simple, it’s very elemental, and I think it gets into big issues. I think American Idol has been an amazing show for many, many seasons. However, I think that sometimes when shows do, you know, have a good season or a bad season, it comes down to something as simple as the crop of contestants that year, and do they break through in a way that makes the audience excited. Those are the kinds of things that tend to make a difference, more so than tweaks to the format and that sort of stuff, as much as we, obviously, would all like to try to assume that it’s in our power.

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DEADLINE: To that power point, how then do you keep a show like Top Chef new after 8 years?
CUTFORTH: It is definitely a challenge to keep a show fresh after many, many seasons. You know, every episode of Top Chef  has two challenges and we’re in the 12th season, with hundreds and hundreds of challenges at this point. In the last season of Top Chef, our New Orleans season, we tried a lot of new things in the show, which I think the audience really responded to.

We had a new element where the contestants could see what the judges were saying about them at certain times, which really kind of worked. We changed our approach to shooting the show, a little bit, and made it a bit more rooted in documentary storytelling, with the contestants getting to experience some things together. We tried different things, both format and approach, that I think made some good headway, and I think Season 12, we’re going to take that even further.

DEADLINE: The location has really become a character in the show, hasn’t it?
CUTFORTH: Yes. One of the cool things about traveling with Top Chef is that we can bring it somewhere new every season and infuse that into the show. So we’re bringing the show to Boston this year, which is a place that we’ve never been, but I think that’s going to be really fantastic for the show. It’s a great, historic town, with a really strong personality, and a lot of different influences going on. I think that could be really cool.

Bravo LogoDEADLINE: In a genre with vets, but also a lot of fallen shows, why do think Top Chef has endured and flourished for Bravo
CUTFORTH: I think the people love a show that is about people who are really in love with what they do, are incredibly enthusiastic about it, and want to share it with the world. I think that what people love about Top Chef is that they love the insight into what it takes to be an incredibly highly-skilled chef. I also think that these kinds of shows are great because they’re just relatable to people. I think when you add a layer of competition, I think that adds something to it as well. It’s also fun to see people who have talent given a platform and an opportunity to shine and an opportunity to become recognized for what they do.

DEADLINE: Having won an Emmy for Top Chef a few years ago, what’s your mindset this Emmy season?
CUTFORTH: Sanguine. It’s exciting. Emmy time is really exciting, and the last several years now we’ve been nominated. So, if we weren’t to be nominated, that would definitely be disappointing and sad, but if we are nominated, we’ll be really excited about it. We have won one time, so we’ve tasted that sweet nectar, and would love to taste it again.

DEADLINE: Looking past the Emmys, what do you think is coming next in the unscripted world?
CUTFORTH: Not surprisingly, I’m going to keep my cards a little close to my vest about that kind of thing. I guess the obvious thing to say to that is that the thing that’s been changing reality TV, in incremental ways for a while now, is the proliferation of the second screen. So, the idea that people are watching TV while having a second screen on their lap, whether it’s a phone or a laptop or a tablet. I think that the way that those two screens work together will probably be the next phase of big, mainstream reality programming. We’re already starting to see that. It will be interesting to see what happens when Rising Star happens.

But I think the way that people interact with each other has undergone a lot of changes in the last five, 10 years; and I think that the proliferation of social media is going to continue to exert an influence on reality programming. Obviously, it’s a huge part of it already.

This is the fourth of five Q&As with some of the heavyweights of reality TV. Dancing With The Stars showrunner Conrad Green will be next on Wednesday discussing his time on the series, his move to Fox’s Utopia and the changing landscape for unscripted competition shows. 

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