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Bravo’s formula takes flight on ‘Runway’ rise

Cabler broadens programs, targets younger creatives

It’s a formula Bravo topper Lauren Zalaznick calls “highly produced realness.”

“It’s not news, it’s not pure D.A. Pennebaker documentary,” says Zalaznick of the NBC U-owned cabler’s reality approach. “But there’s a veracity that I think is very readable to the viewer.”

“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — with its five-pronged focus on fashion, food, beauty, home design and pop culture — inspired the cabler to embark on its own makeover in 2003.

Instead of exclusively targeting already-affluent 25- to 54-year-olds with arty, intellectual fare like “Inside the Actors Studio,” Bravo broadened its programming niche to feed the champagne tastes of younger, aspiring creatives.

The first season of “Queer Eye” tszujed the network to its highest ratings ever, capturing more of the lucrative 18-49 demo than cable rivals and broadcast incumbents alike in the show’s Tuesday night time slot.

While “Queer Eye” shepherded Bravo into a new era, “Project Runway” — which offered an accessible glimpse of the fashion designer’s world with the added dimension of a $100,000 competition — took it to the next level.

Introduced in 2004, “Runway” saw its reach grow to 5.4 million viewers — the largest audience in Bravo’s history — for its third-season finale last October. Meanwhile, the show’s audio podcasts, online videos and interactive polls attracted 5.1 million visitors.

Bravo used “Runway” as a template for “Top Chef,” the second season of which consistently drew more than 2 million foodies, closing in January with cable’s most-watched telecast among adults 18-49.

New competitions modeled on the “Runway” formula — “Top Design” with celeb decorator Todd Oldham and the Jaclyn Smith-hosted hairstyling tourney “Shear Genius” — hope to prove the network has got reality down to a science.

Surprisingly, Bravo’s demographic viewer makeup isn’t as female-dominated as one might expect. In 2006, “We had a higher number of men watching ‘Runway’ on Wednesday nights than were watching ESPN,” says Frances Berwick, the network’s programming and production VP.

The key to the Bravo’s mass appeal (and wife and girlfriend word of mouth) is in the casting of “large, colorful personalities,” Berwick says — from neck-tattooed “Runway” winner Jeffrey Sebelia, or Jackie Warner, the ultrafit flirt helming “Work Out.”

On June 28 Bravo will add a third night of original programming to its reality roster with “Hey Paula,” a fly-on-the-wall look into the life of “American Idol” queen Paula Abdul, and “Flipping Out,” which profiles an obsessive-compulsive real estate jockey.

The metrosexual “Queer Eye” phenom may have crested — indeed, the Fab Five will go their separate ways at the end of this year’s season — but the show’s culinary guru, Ted Allen, remains with the Bravo family as a judge on “Top Chef 3: Miami,” while the network plans a new “Guide to Style” series hosted by “Runway” contestant mentor Tim Gunn.

Brad Adgate, senior VP for media buying agency Horizon Media, notes that Bravo’s reality rise has inadvertently helped competitors build dedicated channels out of individual creative categories, such as cooking and interiors.

But Bravo’s edge over the likes of Food Network and HGTV is its broader tent: It can add acquired or original productions, unscripted shows or even movies, in line with viewers’ ever-changing preferences.

“While Food is probably more recognizable as a brand in the cable landscape,” Adgate says, “Bravo has the ability to put on different genres and formats that give them the opportunity to hit a home run ratings-wise.”

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