This week sees the finale episode of the latest Top Model cycle – season 14 no less!

For The CW, American’s Next Top Model is still the golden goose, almost doubling the viewership of such hyped series as Gossip Girl, 90210 and of course the misguided Melrose Place revamp. And for any show to reach a 14th season is a pretty astounding achievement that should be applauded (although technically Top Model’s cycles aren’t really full seasons, since they only run for 12 weeks). The show has already been re-commissioned for a 15th and 16th run – so Tyra and her team won’t be going anywhere soon. Expect plenty more ‘fierceness’ in the years ahead.

But there are dark clouds looming over this particular franchise. Ratings for the last couple of seasons have slipped by over 25%, falling from an average of 4.35 million viewers for cycle 12 to 3.22 million for cycle 13. And when the latest cycle’s figures are finally calculated I’d anticipate even more declines…

But perhaps even more striking than the show’s ratings slippage is its pop culture presence. Top Model just isn’t hot anymore. It simply isn’t a water cooler show these days. And while that’s often the case for a show that’s been on the air for over 7 years I don’t think it has to be the case. Survivor is now up to season 20 and yet Heroes Versus Villains has gone great guns on Thursday nights. The Amazing Race is still solid on Sundays and even The Apprentice has been able to reinvent itself via its celebrity version. And as for Dancing With The Stars – well it just goes to show how crucial casting is – this season has been both a ratings smash and a tabloid feeding frenzy.

I was a HUGE Top Model fan through season 2-11 but even I must admit to having largely tuned out these last couple of seasons. But I don’t believe the end is inevitable for Top Model. It just needs some simple touch ups – and fast. So as a TV producer myself with numerous reality shows under my belt – here’s my advice to Tyra and her team. ‘You Wanna Be On Top’… Then this is what you need to do…

EYES ON THE PRIZE.

One of the key components for any successful reality show is the prize. It’s why American Idol remains a cultural behemoth – it’s a singing competition that actually finds real stars (Kelly, Carrie, Daughtry, Adam, Jennifer) who go on to have amazing careers. The problem for Tyra? To date she’s still not found a real bona fide supermodel – and that’s a pretty big problem for a show called Top Model!

Obviously it’s trickier for a model to have a cultural presence than say a pop star (with an actual product to promote), and Top Model has a smaller following than most network reality shows (even at its peak, ratings were only in the 5 million range). But even so – it doesn’t help the credibility of the show when most winners can’t even score covers or campaigns after the show. It does make you wonder – what’s the point?

Perhaps it’s time to change the prize? For a show awash with product placement maybe Top Model should be more demanding of its sponsors and actually insist they use past winners in future promotions? Or could the final prize package be expanded? Or maybe the eventual agency that signs the Top Models should offer more guarantees and really work for their new client in exchange for all their on air mentions. As someone who’s been badly burned by a prize sponsor in the past (yes that’s you Geffen Records) it’s time someone stepped up and started looking out for those Top Models. The credibility of the show depends on it…

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT LOOKS.

Which brings me to the second key problem for Top Model. No wonder the contestants aren’t being hired post-Model when so many of them have such vanilla personalities. In general, Top Model has always featured less interesting characters than other reality shows but in recent years its like the casting producers have stopped trying. Dull contestants equal a very dull show – and for me that’s a key reason for the show’s rating slippage.

It hasn’t always been the case. Top Model has had some terrific contestants – and moments – over the years. From Shandi’s guilt trip over cheating on her boyfriend to Eva The Diva (the only model to have really scored any post show success – albeit as an actress), spaced out Lisa’s drunken antics and lesbian tomboy Kim hitting on a fellow model – Top Model has been fantastic at times. And who can forget troubled Tiffany – which led to perhaps the Top Model moment of all time…

But can you name any standout characters or moments from the last couple of seasons? Exactly. One of the key problems I always have with Top Model is that for the first 4 or 5 weeks I can’t tell any of the contestants apart – so I really don’t care who goes home. That’s bad casting pure and simple. So stop just relying on looks – and make sure whoever you cast has personality behind the prettiness.

IT’S NOT THE TYRA SHOW

Man, it feels like I’m always piling into Tyra (see Tyra’s Rabies Prank and my Credit Crisis pieces) but the truth is I actually like Tyra as a host and personality. When she’s real and being down to earth I think she comes across as very likeable and approachable. And she’s the perfect host for the show – with years of modeling and entertainment industry experience.

But far too often on Top Model, Tyra puts herself front and center, throwing herself around in silly sketches and pranks that fall really, really flat.

The fact is Tyra isn’t a comedienne – she’s a model and possibly actress – so let’s leave the comedy stuff to the experts and just do a great job of hosting, nurturing and judging the contestants. Just look at how classy Heidi Klum always remains among the Runway craziness. Remember one of the key fashion rules – less is more.

CUT THE FAT

If you want to be a Top Model you have to be in shape – and it’s not just the show’s contestants that could benefit from that advice! One of the key problems of Top Model is that it’s two shows in one. The second half is great – we get a fabulous photo shoot and the always interesting judging. But the first half of the show – well it’s kinda meh!

My issue with the first 30 minutes of Top Model is that it has no stakes or purpose. It has limited effect on the eventual judging (the photo shoot is always the key elimination factor) and normally becomes an excuse for a silly product placement challenge or pointless exercise. Plus Model keeps reusing the same old stunts – meaningless (and always embarrassing) acting challenges, Benny Ninja’s silly gymnastics, Miss J’s bitchy walking lessons…. we’ve seen it all before.

How to shake things up? Well what if there was a mid-show elimination from time to time (they did it once and for me it worked well) Or the model who wins the challenge receives immunity – or gets to decide which of the bottom two models goes home that week? Now suddenly I’m interested…

LESS MODEL BEHAVIOR

Which leads me to the show’s storylines – isn’t it time we started seeing a bit more drama on Top Model these days? For me that’s the key element that’s been missing these last few seasons – catfights, bitching, backstabbing and some truly great villains.

Obviously the Top Model casting team isn’t doing the trick at the moment – so it’s time the show’s producers started stirring up some trouble themselves (here’s a behind the scenes idea – start trimming down some of those redundant ‘story producer’ positions American TV is so fond of and start hiring people who actually know how to elicit some drama!)

The show’s formula is so well worn now it’s become pretty much redundant. But how about pairing girls up for more challenges where they must depend on each other for success? (a trick Project Runway pulls off to perfection) Or how about introducing a voting element to the show to rack up the tension – and tears? Or how about bringing back an eliminated contestant – or a model from a previous year – or adding a troublemaker to the mix?

These aren’t rocket science ideas – they’re old standards in the reality world. But they work and get results. Above all the show needs to re-introduce the element of surprise. When contestants are complacent and know all the rules they play it safe…

START STUNTING

Which brings me to final suggestion – start shaking up the whole concept of the series with big, season long stunts that will get everyone talking. Honestly, it’s time!

Last season the big ‘gimmick’ was that the models were all ‘shorter’. Wow, what a yawner! If they really want to get results on Top Model the producers are going to have to go a lot further than a lame device like this.

How about a boys versus girls season (it’s bizarre to me that the show hasn’t featured ANY male competitors yet) Or how about international models versus homegrown American girls? Or teenagers versus twentysomethings? Or poor girls versus rich bitches. There’s so many possibilities – and so much fun the show can have with the concept. But up to now Top Model continues to play it safe.

So come on Tyra – I know you can do it. Let’s put Top Model back on top again! Cause if you’re not careful this is one show that’s very soon going to be completely out of fashion…

But what do you think… should Top Model change – and what would you suggest…