Bravo needs an encore

Cabler looks for makeover as 'Queer Eye' sags

With “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Bravo demonstrated how one hit could make a network. Now, as that franchise fades, the NBC Universal cabler needs its own makeover.

Nearly two years after former net topper Jeff Gaspin made the style show an overnight cultural phenom the cabler faces lagging ratings and a reality explosion across competing cablers.

Gaspin is now NBC U prexy of cable and may be moving on up the corporate ladder, so Bravo’s challenges have landed in the lap of chief Lauren Zalaznick.

She’s the media junkie and scrappy programmer who turned digital netlet Trio into a critical darling by injecting a dose of attitude into everything the cabler did. Critical darling but ratings mystery, since the cabler only reached 14 million homes.

A year after taking the helm at Bravo, Zalaznick insists she’s cooking up goods that will once again blow the roof off. Her recipe: more upscale, hopefully hipper, reality concepts than her competitors.

Not that such concepts always work.

Earlier this year, the network premiered its latest on-air look, tagline and spin-off “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl,” but demos did not budge from the previous year.

In the first three weeks of July — a peak launch time for cable — the channel is down 8% in overall viewers year to year. That’s after 2004 summer declines of 17%.

Parent NBC U is expecting aturnaround.

With flagship NBC having taken some hits and hemorrhaging $900 million at the recent upfront advertising market, the cable group has been a bright spot, registering gains to offset the broadcast losses. Corporate sibs USA and Sci Fi Channel are in fine form, and USA will be in even better shape once ratings juggernaut WWE hits the sked this fall.

But the belt-tightening in effect across the board at the Peacock isn’t reflected at the nets’ development or programming departments, NBC U execs insist. Substantial loss of coin, however, is bound to affect the TV group in other ways — like downsizing — sooner rather than later.

Despite the money shortfall , Bravo’s got 30 series in the works and will spend $130 million on programming this year, up from $114 million in 2004, according to Kagan World estimates.

“I was just in a development meeting that ran 45 minutes over and we didn’t even get to all the things on the agenda,” Zalaznick says. “We have that much stuff percolating.”

Among the slew of reality series she’s herding, are a trio of Tinseltown-focussed projects: “Situation Comedy,” a reality competish in search of the next big sitcom scribe; “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,” about the less-than-glam dealings of the comedian; and “Hidden Howie,” a semi-scripted project in which Howie Mandel stars as a version of himself.

This comes after Bravo’s “Project Greenlight” earned an Emmy nom but averaged a mere 287,000 viewers. And it also comes as every other cabler in town readies its inside Hollywood project.

“My challenge is to stay creatively focused and continue to bring a new forum of arts to TV and make sure it’s entertaining,” Zalaznick says. “And we’re going to take as many swings at bat as we can because that’s the pace pop culture is moving and we want to reflect that.”

Total at-bats for the key period July through September? Nine.

Tom Weeks, a director at Starcom Entertainment, credits the network for its tentpoles — “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” “Queer Eye,” “Blow Out” and “Inside the Actors Studio” — and deemed “Project Runway” a surprise breakthrough. Bravo’s problem is more about refining a distinctive voice amongst a dozen other reality-based nets.

“They’re in rediscovery mode like A&E was a year and a half ago,” Weeks says. “They did sort of oversaturate the network with ‘Queer Eye,’ but they’re making money for NBC and have a nice affluent core. So it’s just a matter of (fleshing out) their voice and shoring up what they want to do in the reality space.”

Zalaznick says Bravo’s voice has come through on a number of projects.

“Being Bobby Brown,” starring the former pop star and his more famous wife, Whitney Houston, has consistently won its 10 p.m. timeslot in adults 18-49 on Thursdays. Renewed fashion competish “Project Runway” started small but built to a finale aud of more than 2 million viewers, besting the buzz of CBS’ version, “The Cut.” And the just-concluded second season of “Blow Out” delivered more than 1 million viewers.

But many of Bravo’s rivals are now plowing the same ground — and one cable exec describes the landscape as “more competitive than ever. Everyone’s brand lines are blurred.”

“You’ve got competing SWAT shows at Court TV and A&E, competing tattoo parlor shows at A&E and TLC and competing real-estate agent shows at TLC and Bravo,” exec says. “It’s hard to stand out in a crowd when that kind of thing is happening.”

And unlike general entertainment cablers TNT and USA, Bravo is not in the acquisitions and theatricals game — expensive propositions that virtually guarantee big ratings.

With so much in development, including non-showbiz projects “Top Chef,” “Real Housewives” and “Tabloid Wars” set for next year, Zalaznick says the more competition, the merrier.

“My view on that is the more channels like ours that are doing well, the better for me. It means what I’m doing has a chance to be popular,” she says. “As for our shows, it will be come very clear that they are for very upscale, educated people who don’t want the whitebread pabulum of other networks.”

As for “Queer Eye,” Zalaznick is resolute: The show will stay in its Tuesday night timeslot “for a long, long time.”

A formal renewal hasn’t been announced, but exec says the show’s up 30% from the cabler’s primetime average.

“These are huge numbers. Sixty-five episodes and two years in, this is not a show that’s had a precipitous crash.”

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