Bravo Continues to Cater to Upscale

Cabler sticks with upscale femme mix amid growing competition; scripted skeins are next priority

With its heavy reliance on unscripted series centered on screaming debutantes and other ill-behaved wealthy folk, Bravo could be lumped in with the Honey Boo Boos and sundry Kardashians populating other cable frontiers. But the net’s ability to woo upscale, highly educated viewers (no swamp people, hoarders or pawn-shop brokers here) — and turn them into part of a chattering community — makes it an attractive place for advertisers as well as audiences. NBCUniversal is serving the property well by allowing it to stay on its current course.

(From the pages of the April 9 issue of Variety.)

Under prexy Frances Berwick, Bravo is up 5% in viewers 18-49 and 7% in viewers 25-54 for the year to date, per Nielsen. SNL Kagan predicts more ad revenue for the net in 2013, as well as a slight uptick in the fees it gets from video distribs. Besides, it’s hard to think of another programming franchise like “Real Housewives” that boasts six different editions and is about to support its own “awards” experience that lets fans vote for Best Supporting Agitator or Hottest Hubby from among various casts.

Bravo has a new corporate overseer these days who is also a seasoned programmer. Bonnie Hammer in February was assigned oversight of all of NBCU’s entertainment-focused cable networks. When she was given supervision of E! in 2011 after Comcast took control of the conglom, broadening that net’s appeal became a top item on her to-do list. Might she tweak the home of Top Chef and “Millionaire Matchmaker?”

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Not in the near future. In a brief interview conducted after the new lineup was unveiled, Bravo’s Berwick saw “very little” change ahead. And while it’s true NBCU has a few similarly focused nets under its umbrella — Style, E! and Oxygen come to mind — Bravo is the crown jewel of the bunch. The net typically skews toward audiences in their 30s and 40s, Berwick said; E! skews more toward a thirtysomething audience. Style, which she also helms, is targeted toward people seeking “how to” content. Dan Lovinger, who oversees ad sales for all of the NBC entertainment cablers, suggested Oxygen was able to bring in new audiences who want a peek at new ideas the network is examining, but noted Bravo’s audience was stable and eager to stay under its tent.

On April 3, Bravo unveiled its programming slate for the year ahead, and said it would add 17 new unscripted series to 18 already on the grid. Viewers will still see many of the usual elements in new shows onscreen, but Bravo is also experimenting. A new effort to develop scripted series could lure those sponsors sometimes shy about attaching themselves to reality fare.

And there seems to be an added emphasis on so-called “docuseries.” Bravo will introduce an ambitious effort called “Newlyweds: The First Year.” The show follows four couples from “I do” to their first anniversary, with filmmaker Lauren Lazin capturing it all.

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“Southern Charm” looks at the modern-day aristocracy of Charleston, S.C. “Extreme Guide to Parenting” focuses on households with unorthodox but hardcore beliefs about raising children. “Thicker Than Water: The Tankards” offers a look at former basketball pro-turnedgospel singer Ben Tankard and his blended family, and their efforts to expand his ministry. “Princesses: Long Island” is a look at six young women from Great Neck, Long Island, who move back to their parents’ estates.

One reason to keep Bravo on its current path: advertisers appreciate networks whose viewers get intensely worked up. “Bravo has done an amazing job of building a base of truly upscale women-targeted shows,” said Billie Gold, a VP and director of research at ad-buying firm Carat. Sponsors can reach women with anything from HGTV, Style and E! to various ABC programs, she said, “but none reach this demo with the full scope of its lineup the way Bravo does.”

The trend among cablers these days is to get broader, drawing bigger audiences to cadge more money from sponsors. But there’s something to be said for attracting fans whose ardor for such Bravo staples as celebutante breakdowns and mouthy life advisors can’t be quenched. What can you say about a network whose exec VP of development and talent (Andy Cohen) is also its latenight host (“Watch What Happens Live”)? There’s not much space between the people who run the net and the programming that runs on it.

Whether Bravo execs have their hands on the pulse of the American TV viewer is a moot question. They have their hands on the pulse of the people who watch their air, and for now, that’s enough.

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