The Shake-Up at America's Next Top Model

How and Why the Show Changed

Model and TV personality Tyra Banks

 Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In February 2012, before its 18th season (or "cycle"), America's Next Top Model was one of the most successful reality shows of all time. Then it abruptly fired three central cast members and dramatically altered the competition's format. It also offered a prize that many viewers and contestants considered downright bad. We take a look at what happened.

Why Things Changed

First airing in May 2003, America's Next Top Model became an almost instant hit for the CW network on which it was broadcast. By Cycle 18, it reportedly drew more advertising dollars than any other CW show. It had also transformed host Tyra Banks into a media mogul, launched the careers of a dozen models, and spawned 20 international versions.

So why mess with a good thing?

Perhaps, as Heidi Klum has warned elsewhere, "One day you're in; the next day you're out." Advertisers, producers, and even viewers aren't always satisfied with past success. We all want to know, "What have you done for me lately?"

And lately, things in Model Land hadn'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. Cycle 16 and Cycle 17 garnered about 2.5 million each, and Cycle 18 plummeted to a mere 1.5 million.

Why did Top Model's ratings go into a free fall? Some say it was just a natural process that all shows have to contend with. Others say that Tyra Banks should shoulder some of the responsibility. She took 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. Simply put, ANTM became a parody of itself.

Likewise, Banks' decision to devote one cycle to a "British invasion," in which former Top Model competitors from across the pond 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 were only interested in American contestants.

Regardless, those numbers translate directly to dollars because advertisers won't continue to shell out big bucks for fewer and fewer customer eyeballs.

What Specifically Changed

So it's not surprising that some of America's Next Top Model's long-term partners (especially CoverGirl) pulled their advertising, leaving ANTM producers scrambling to keep their ship from capsizing.

That led to the April 2012 firing of judge Nigel Barker, photo shoot director Jay Manuel, and runway coach J. Alexander. It also prompted some puzzling structural changes. 

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 also hoped to increase viewer involvement with the show by allowing fans to vote and have a say in which contestants were eliminated. (The power hadn't switched to viewers, but judges now included a social media score in their calculations. Thankfully, this was eliminated in Cycle 22.)

There were also changes in the prize packages, including the loss of CoverGirl's $100,000 contract for the season's winner. (The new grand prize, a contract with LA/NY Models, $100,000 cash, and campaigns with Smashbox Cosmetics and Nine West, was not nearly as prestigious.) Individual challenge winners—who used to also receive top designer swag—now received $10,000 in "scholarship monies" and a night in the Tyra Suite.

While the $10,000 sounds great, the only model to actually receive her scholarship money was the girl who won the entire season. And the Tyra suite, even if stocked with ANTM-sponsored products, didn't compare to previous prizes, like diamonds and designer shoes.

Who Benefited

So, who came out a winner from the changes? Naturally, the new staff: judge Rob Evans, social media correspondent Bryanboy, and photo shoot director Johnny Wujek benefited. But who else?

  1. P'Trique: After trying to get on the show for several seasons, the internet sensation and star of the viral video "Sh*t Fashion Girls Say," had a recurring guest appearance on ANTM Cycle 19. As a bearded man who wears dresses, P'Trique could also fill the gender-bending void left by Miss J. Alexander's departure. However, he didn't last beyond the season.
  2. Social Media: The revised Top Model upped the show's social media presence by hiring Bryanboy to read comments on the show and allowing fans to vote on their favorite models (and photos). Then Tyra Banks further elevated 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 seemed to treat 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 few people would ever utter in person.
  3. Tech-Savvy Top Model Fans: With options to vote and comment on models, viewers had more power than ever before. They could also create and post their own YouTube video replies, some of which aired on future episodes.

Who Lost Out

Aside from Nigel Barker, J. Alexander and Jay Manuel, of course, the changes had a negative impact on the following:

  1. Supermodels: In the past, America's Next Top Model had been home to not just one but two supermodels—Tyra Banks and a second judge (Janice Dickinson, Twiggy, and Paulina Porizkova). But with the tightened budget, the female supermodel role was filled by a hot, young male model, judge Rob Evans (rumored to be Tyra's boyfriend). Evans may have had less to offer as a mentor than a female supermodel, but he made up for it in added sex appeal. 
  2. Fashion Magazines and 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 stuck mostly 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.
  3. The Top Model winner: Instead of getting a cover and fashion spread in Vogue Italia, Cycle 19's winner got a spread in the far less prestigious (if hipper) magazine Nylon. Furthermore, CoverGirl, which for 18 cycles awarded winners a $100,000 contract, was no longer collaborating with Top Model. While the ANTM winner did 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.
  4. The ANTM contestants: Not only were the prizes smaller but the models also lost their mentors, who took a real interest in helping these young women find success in a difficult and challenging field. Plus, they were being judged by people with less expertise. Although viewers—and anyone browsing the internet—could vote, few of us knows 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.

What it Meant for the Future

Up until Cycle 18, America's Next Top Model had held a unique position in television. It was one of the most successful reality shows of all time, serving as a tent pole to CW's programming, and it impacted the fashion industry and the culture at large both in the U.S. and around the world.

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 of America's Next Top Model did indeed ripple outward and was felt in multiple industries.

But the changes did little to boost ratings. By Cycle 22 (2015), ratings had dropped to 1.54 million viewers. The show is still on the air, but whether it can return to its former glory is anyone's guess at this point.