Network plans for life post-Tim Gunn

You may think that “Project Runway,” the hit fashion series that’s deserting Bravo for Lifetime this fall, has nothing in common with the high-rated weekly wrestling extravaganza “WWE Raw” on USA.

But the television historian Tim Brooks, for one, says the two shows do share one trait: They walked away from renewing their contract with the network that made them big audience pleasers and migrated to a competitive network that offered more money.

“WWE Raw” actually embarked on the cross-network voyage twice, from USA to Spike TV (then known at TNN) in 2000 and from Spike back to USA five years later, in October 2005. The departure of the wrestlers caused first USA and then Spike TV to fall off in the ratings for a number of months, but they both eventually recovered.

To avoid the Nielsen body slams suffered by USA and Spike in their first post-wrestling years, Bravo is ramping up the visibility of its successful current series, splurging in 2008-09 on the most ambitious slate of projects in its 28-year history, and continuing its courtship of upscale, educated viewers (mostly women and gay men), whose loyalty has made Bravo the toast of Madison Avenue.

Bravo executives have declined to speculate about the prospect of life after “Project Runway,” citing the breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by NBC Universal, Bravo’s parent, against the Weinstein Co., which owns the series. But it’s clear Bravo still possesses a slate of TV series that can help it to continue its Nielsen winning streak.

One thing working in its favor is that Bravo has consistently attracted new viewers to its hits. “Top Chef” and “Real Housewives of Orange County” are among the numerous Bravo series — along with “Project Runway” — to see their ratings grow with each subsequent season.

That’s why a series like “Make Me a Supermodel,” which averaged a bit over 1 million viewers in its first season earlier this year, will return for a second season. It may have not been a ratings hit, but it’s on-brand and something Bravo thinks could blossom into something much bigger.

“Bravo has developed a dedicated audience that won’t desert the network so easily, even without ‘Project Runway’,” says Kevin Sandler, who teaches film and media studies at Arizona State U.

Brooks concurs: “Bravo will do okay because it’s got a machine that churns out six or seven new-program launches a year. For celebrity-oriented shows that are light and snarky, Bravo has stolen the ball from E!”

Bravo is laying down big bets on the second season of “Shear Genius,” the hair-styling competition series hosted by Jaclyn Smith, slotting it behind “Project Runway” on Wednesday nights.

So far the stronger lead-in has helped introduce “Genius” to lots more viewers, driving it to a series-best 2.4 million viewers on July 30, following the 3.3 million for “Project Runway.” And among adults 18-49, “Genius” attracted a sizable 1.5 million, which puts it in the same league as “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” Bravo’s third highest-rated series behind “Runway” and “Top Chef.”

Starting with spring of 2006, Bravo has gained more viewers in each quarter, hitting an average of 683,000 for the second quarter of this year. The network resides in 28th place among ad-supported cable nets, and 21st among adults 18-49.

Under the aegis of Frances Berwick, executive VP and general manager of Bravo Media, the network has commissioned a batch of fresh projects, led by “American Artist” (working title), a competition series jointly produced by Sarah Jessica Parker’s company Pretty Matches and Magical Elves, which produces “Runway.” “Artist” will focus on, as Bravo puts it, “aspiring contemporary artists who’ll create and compete in a range of disciplines including sculpture, painting, photography and industrial design.”

Other projects in development include “Fashion House” (working title), based on the British series that pits designers against one another to create an entire line of clothing on deadline, and “Top Chef” Masters,” a spinoff dealing with gourmet cooks who face off in a series of weekly challenges.

Bravo will need all of these new shows, because for the first time it has begun scheduling original programming on four nights, Monday through Thursday. (As late as 2006, Bravo programmed only one night of originals.)

Lauren Zalaznick, president of women-&-lifestyle-entertainment networks for NBC U, acknowledges that Bravo’s record volume of production has inflated its budget. In four years, according to SNL Kagan, Bravo’s spending on programming, both original and acquired, has shot up by more than 50%, from $85 million in 2004 to a projected $130 million this year.

But Bravo harvests so much money from advertising — a projected gross of $260 million in 2008 compared to $163 million in 2004 — that it’s more profitable than its sister NBC broadcast network.

One of the reasons Bravo sits at the top of the network pole in luring the most affluent and educated collection of young-adult viewers in cable TV is that “people can identify with the talented competitors who want to become good chefs or good interior decorators,” says Berwick, referring to shows like “Top Chef” and “Top Design.”

The men and women who vie with one another in Bravo’s competitive-reality series, Berwick continues, are not using their 15 minutes of primetime-network fame for something superficial, like “becoming celebrities, or starting careers in show business.”

“Craftsmanship is on display in many of Bravo’s series,” says Dr. Astrid Henry, who teaches women’s studies at Grinnell College in Iowa. “The viewer gets to see how people on the screen go about designing clothes or cooking gourmet food.”

Although it doesn’t harvest as many viewers, on average, as the competitive weekly donnybrooks, Bravo’s other popular form of reality, the unscripted docudrama, has yielded hits, including “Real Housewives of Orange County,” “Work Out” and “Flipping Out.”

Another ingredient in Bravo’s success is that “we’re a very gay-friendly network,” Berwick says. Back during the late ’90s, she continues, “we saw the impact in the ratings of gay-themed movies and a series we ran called ‘My Fire Island,’ ” an acquisition from England’s Channel 4 about a gay couple and a lesbian couple and their summer-house time-share.

So when the idea for “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” came across Berwick’s desk in 2003, she didn’t have to agonize before flashing the green light. Within a year, “Queer Eye” had taken off like a comet, becoming the biggest hit in Bravo’s history and bringing lots of viewers to the channel for the first time.

“Queer Eye” was lighthearted and funny, qualities that Berwick tries to encourage in all of Bravo’s other reality shows.

“Bravo keeps plowing away at creating new variations of what I call the thinking person’s reality show,” says Bob Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for TV and popular culture at Syracuse U. “Many of the shows have succeeded so well that we can’t call them guilty pleasures any more. They’re real pleasures.”

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