Is Bravo’s ‘Affluencer’ Niche Recession-Proof?

Lauren Zalaznick — who oversees Bravo, Oxygen and the other NBC Universal “women and lifestyle” networks — spoke at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills on Wednesday night, and she advanced an interesting theory about Bravo’s lifestyle programming and the recession.

The channel endured “a rough six months,” she said, when some of its programming — like “Million Dollar Listing” or “Real Housewives of Orange County” — seemed slightly out of step with what was happening in the country because of the lag time in production. Those realities, however, have caught up with the shows.

Maybe, but I think Bravo has a somewhat larger problem: The channel’s exaltation of the fab-u-lous life — which has led it to coin the phrase “affluencer,” referring to a trend-setting demographic consisting of upscale women and gay men — can’t really adapt quickly to the fact that people are hurting. As a consequence, programmers are forced to plow ahead within the network’s niche, even at the risk of appearing tone-deaf.

Zalaznick — a very smart executive — did suggest that she thought it would be a mistake to try chasing economic trends. Yes, she noted, the Depression produced lavish musicals and the Vietnam era powerfully influenced music, but trying to bend programming to fit the current recession simply invited bubbles, as opposed to implementing longterm strategy.

She might be right. But Bravo’s approach — which Zalaznick described as a “relentlessly 30-something network,” presenting people who are committed to their careers “without judgment” — has frequently made me wince of late. Judgment, for some of these painfully shallow people, certainly seems warranted. And Bravo has another potential dilemma with the Salahis — the fame-crazed couple that allegedly crashed a White House state dinner in pursuit of a role on the D.C. version of the “Real Housewives” franchise.

Sure, the media attention will produce a ratings spike, but does Bravo want to reward such irresponsible behavior, “without judgment?” For all Bravo’s deft management of its brand, the outcome of that decision — along with the vagaries of the economy — could come to define the NBC U channel’s image more than anybody there would like.

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