Driven by reality fair, network thrives

The Dow dipped below 7,000 and unemployment could soon hit 10%, but Bravo just had its best February ever, with a 16% year-to-year uptick in coveted young-adult viewers that was driven mainly by hoity-toity chefs, millionaire matchmakers and rich housewives.

Showcasing catty, shopaholic women like those seen in NBC Universal’s “Real Housewives” franchise would seem especially anachronistic on the face of things.

In fact, there’s been some consternation — and even disgust — directed at Bravo among critics and bloggers, who can’t understand why the pampered-class-catering channel would be showing this kind of programming, and viewers would be avidly consuming it, given the economic reality.

“Aren’t we over the rich by now?” pondered Time’s James Poniewozik

Apparently not.

“Real Housewives of Orange County” wrapped its fourth — and highest-rated — season last month with an episode titled “Bling Bling.” The show was up a whopping 34% from its third campaign among 18-49-year-olds and 39% in total viewers, with an average overall aud of roughly 2.1 million, according to Nielsen estimates.

And on the same night, the season premiere of “The Real Housewives of New York” — which featured a couple casually blowing through about $8,000 during a Hamptons shopping excursion — scored series-high ratings too, with upticks of 86% in adults 18-49 and 99% among total viewers (824,000).

Meanwhile, the elaborate meals prepared on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” which often cost more than an entire unemployment check, appear too, er, rich.

But the just-wrapped food show enjoyedits best season yet as well, up double digits in key demos.

Andy Cohen, senior VP of production and programming for Bravo, is happy to answer his critics.

“I don’t think all of television needs to put a black crate on itself and retreat until the market goes up,” he explains. “And the recession will be presented within the filter of the characters.”

Cohen notes that “Real Housewives of New York” started second-season production last summer, before the credit crises hit the fan.

“As the season goes on, you’ll see the characters talking about the recession more,” he explains.

While Bravo’s viewers — as well as those for riches-themed reality skeins on other channels, including NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” — have largely been content to go along for the aspirational ride, some purveyors of lifestyle-themed reality shows have chosen to adapt with the changing economic conditions.

In fact, some have had no choice.

TLC, for example, has had to redevelop its real estate-themed shows, with skeins like “Flip That House” evolving into the more buyer-market-driven “Deals on the Bus” (which features home shoppers trolling for foreclosure bargains).

“I think we have to be sensitive to what’s going on in the world,” says TLC production and development topper Nancy Daniels.

There have even been tweaks at Bravo. For example, “Flipping Out’s” obsessive-compulsive star, Jeff Lewis, now focuses much more on interior design than he does on real estate speculation.

Meanwhile, on the channel’s upcoming series “The Fashion Show,” clothing-design challenges might well end up striking a more practical tone compared with the hit show being replaced, “Project Runway.”

“Any good story teller wants to tell good stories, and right now a good story is that people want to buy clothes for less,” notes series producer JD Roth.

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