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After a messy and low-rated 13th season of the iconic “Real Housewives of New York City,” which concluded in September without even holding a reunion, Bravo’s “Housewives” braintrust decided to regroup. Fixing this important cornerstone of the franchise was, after all, crucial for the network. This week, Andy Cohen — the longtime executive producer of “The Real Housewives” — unveiled the team’s radical new plan in an exclusive interview with Variety.

The two-part strategy “takes into account everything that our passionate audience has really been telling us over the last year,” Cohen said, and involves “rebooting and recasting” the series, most likely from scratch, and launching a second “RHONY” series featuring former stars.

“You know that we’re at a crossroads for ‘RHONY,’” Cohen said. “We’ve spent a lot of time figuring out where to go. And the plan that we’ve come up with, I think, is a real gift to the fans.”

Bravo’s first priority is to fix the mothership — a challenge Cohen looks forward to enthusiastically. “There are thousands of stories to tell here,” he said. “This is the most multicultural, diverse, and energetic and exciting city in America: We are searching for a multicultural group of friends who really best reflect the most exciting city in the country. We’re looking for a group of women who are real friends, and who are of diverse backgrounds, races and religions.”

But “RHONY” has been a Bravo mainstay since it premiered in 2008 and quickly became part of the zeitgeist, so in an effort not to throw away what’s worked for so many years, Cohen simultaneously announced a second “Real Housewives of New York City” that will feature ex-cast members from the original show over the years.

Though there’s no official title for this show yet, Cohen said it’s being referred to internally as “RHONY: Throwback” or “RHONY: Legacy.” As his in-depth interview with Variety below makes clear, Cohen declined to say who might be on that show, but does expect Jill Zarin to be the first person to call him. Affecting a perfect Zarin imitation, Cohen said, “Jill is gonna be, like, ‘Am I getting my apple back?’” As for where the two shows will air, Cohen said that the “RHONY” reboot is “being developed and produced for Bravo,” but he thinks it’s a “question mark where the throwback will air” since Peacock is an option.

In Season 13, “The Real Housewives of New York City” was quite literally plagued. Because of COVID restrictions in the city in fall 2020 and winter 2021, the smaller-than-usual cast of five women — which for the first time in “RHONY” history included a Black cast member, Eboni K. Williams — traveled from empty restaurants to empty homes, having fraught conversations about race and politics. Its joylessness was reflected in the season’s low ratings, and an already difficult-to-schedule reunion was scrapped when the network wondered whether viewers would even want to watch one.

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A recent “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen,” with guests Shannon Beador and Eboni K. Williams. Courtesy of Charles Sykes/Bravo

An obvious question for the rebooted “RHONY” is whether Williams — who was popular with some segments of the audience, but less so with others — might be an anchor of the new show. “We are interviewing multiple groups of friends,” Cohen said. “So certainly if Eboni is interested and has friends that would meet our casting goals, then of course they would be considered.”

Of course, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” typically the most highly rated series in the “Housewives” portfolio, and the popular “Real Housewives of Potomac,” both feature entirely Black casts. But Cohen said he doubts the new “RHONY” will go that way: “I think it will be the rainbow that is New York City. That’s the goal.”

With the new “throwback” edition, Cohen said that the “Housewives” creative team learned key lessons from “The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip,” which brought together cast members from different franchises, and launched on Peacock in mid-November. With this new series, though, the women will be filmed in their lives in New York rather than sent to an island somewhere.

“Our loyal fans have spoken as to what they want to see and what they don’t want to see — and we’ve taken that all into account,” he said. “And this is a series where you’re going to expect to see fan-favorites from the show’s great history.

“It’s organic, you know?” Cohen continued. “They were in each other’s lives, and they are in each other’s lives.” He wants the fantasy casting to begin: “We’re looking at people who are beloved by fans.”

Cohen’s use of “beloved” would suggest that Ramona Singer — an OG cast member from “RHONY” who’s become an increasingly divisive figure in recent years — will not be a part of the throwback. But Cohen and a Bravo spokesperson said official casting hasn’t even begun, and wouldn’t elaborate further on Singer specifically. 

Cohen isn’t worried about casting the throwback show; it’s the “RHONY” reboot he’s focused on, and he sounded gleeful when discussing it.

“I’ve got to tell you that in my almost 20 years working with Bravo, to me, this is the most exciting casting proposition that I’ve been involved with,” he said. “We are quite literally looking for who will be the new ‘Real Housewives of New York City!’ And I think this represents a tremendous opportunity for a rebirth of the show. What we’re looking for is everything that makes a great Housewife: fun, opinionated, successful, aspirational women who represent a side of New York that we want to see more of.”

Cohen discussed the particulars of the relaunch of “The Real Housewives of New York City” and its new sibling show.

How is the casting working, generally speaking? Like, how do you find groups of friends?  

Part of why we really wanted to announce this before it happened is that we want to hear from people. This is a major casting search. We’re going to be casting all over Manhattan and the boroughs — part of the search is spreading the word. And when you start from scratch, “Beverly Hills” was a really successful Season 1 cast, “Jersey” was a really successful Season 1 cast, “Salt Lake City” was a really successful Season 1 cast. Those were people who were in each other’s lives, who knew each other, who were relatives. That’s one of the things that is going to be fun about this. Because when we find people that we love, we can say, “Who are your friends? Who else is in your life?”

I’ve talked both to you and to Shari Levine about this in the past — when Bravo started integrating previously all-white “Real Housewives” casts, it was hard in New York in particular. How do you incentivize a woman of color who’s seen what other women of color have gone through to say, “Yes, I want to do this”? 

I think that it will make it better if they’re going on with their friends or people that are in their lives. Listen, there are two types of people: people who want to be on this show and who don’t want to be on this show. I think if the door’s partly open toward the conversation, and you say, “We love your best friend, too, and we love your cousin,” then I think it becomes more of a, “Oh, wow, let’s all do this together, and this will be great.”

Diversifying the “Housewives” has gone well for “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” and with “Salt Lake City” and the “Miami” reboot from their starts. For “Dallas,” it turned into a disaster that’s ended the show for now — and it didn’t go great for “New York” either. Tell me what you’ve learned about successful inclusive casting in the past few years. 

One of the things that makes these shows such a success is that they’re about real people with real connections, and their interactions. The thing we always come back to is that our greatest successes — and certainly one of the things that resonated with “RHONY” in the past — is featuring women who had relationships before joining the show, and we’re going to focus on that going forward.

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Bethenny Frankel Courtesy of Rodolfo Martinez/Bravo

Switching to the “RHONY” throwback show, do you know who in particular you might want on it?

In my mind, I do.

Let’s just say, because they’re still beloved and were on last season, Sonja Morgan and Luann de Lesseps.  

I don’t really want to get into specifics about specific women. Because then it’s like, “Oh, well, he said yes to these two…” The answer is: Sonja and Luann have been a part of the show — for Luann, from the beginning, and Sonja since Season 3. So I think, in theory, sure!

I could talk to you about hypothetical situations involving a lot of people that used to be on the show. I think the good news is, that’s a group that’s all still in each other’s lives.

I know you are focusing on the reboot first, but is Bethenny Frankel a potential cast member for the throwback show? 

Listen, I go back with Bethenny since the beginning. She’s moved to Connecticut, but she’s still in the Hamptons. Her life is now evolved to another place, so I can’t imagine her wanting to do it. But of course, you know, I never turn down a conversation with Bethenny about coming back.

Do you have a goal for when to start shooting the rebooted “RHONY”? 

No, I feel like we want to get the cast right. We just want to get it right. So that’s the focus right now. I don’t want to back into a production date. Because I want this to succeed; it’s too important to too many people.

Going back to last season of “RHONY,” when did you realize that the show wasn’t working?

I think that we’ve put last season of “RHONY” under so much scrutiny and trial that I hate to rehash. When we were shooting, we only had five Housewives, we were shooting during COVID, we were tremendously limited as to where we could shoot. And this was a show that was really shot differently than all the other cities, because New York City is very much a huge character in the show.

That all aside, I think that if you look at any series, where the ratings are declining week to week as the series goes on, and the viewer feedback is growing disenchanted on social media, etc. — I think that was a big red flag for us. Because this is a beloved show. And that’s part of the reason why it’s taken a bit for us to just sit with this and figure out how we want to make this right, and make it a gift to the fans, which I think this will wind up being.

The finale was in September, you knew there were problems before that. So I assume this was a long, thought-out process.

It’s been long and thought out, but in truth, we really just started having the most serious conversations over the last few months. Because we also just wanted to sit and get some air and recalibrate. This is a show that’s gone back into production very closely after the reunion every year. That’s why we also just wanted to give everybody a minute to live their lives. And then it let us figure it out, if we could do anything — which we can — what would we do?

We’ve also seen the success of “Ultimate Girls Trip.” That informed the idea of doing this throwback, that’s allowed us to say, “Well, wait a minute, there is a big desire for an element of nostalgia.”

And I heard from more people over the last two years that they have rewatched “RHONY” from the beginning, and how much they love early seasons of “RHONY.” I just think there are a lot of people who hold this particular franchise very dear to their hearts, and also have a lot of nostalgia about it. I think that this throwback version will be playing on that. This is why I think both ideas are a gift to the fans.

We’re totally revitalizing “RHONY” with the energy and spirit of the of the city of New York, and bringing it up to date, while also giving the fans the gift of being able to visit with their old friends.

The women who were on “RHONY” last season, have they been agitating? Do you hear from them frequently?  

I was hearing from them a lot last year. But I have to say, especially given that this group is usually a group that is very like, “When are we starting? What’s the plan?” You know, they’re aggressive! And they’re Type A. They’ve really all respected the fact that we’re gonna figure this out, and we’ll let you know. So they’ve been very relaxed, especially considering that this is a group of people that I would not necessarily typically characterize as relaxed.

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The cast of “The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip.” Courtesy of Karolina Wojtasik/Peacock

Can you talk more about how Peacock and the success of “Ultimate Girls Trip” — with the fans, at least, since the ratings aren’t reported — opens up new doors for “The Real Housewives” franchise?  

“Ultimate Girls Trip” was really a smash hit. And it allowed us to see, “Oh, we can have this other universe going. And it’s not going to cannibalize the original.” It made the pitch of doing this throwback version — like you could see it. In another year, it might have seemed gluttonous or odd about whether there was an appetite for “The Real Housewives of New York” and “Real Housewives of New York: Throwback.” But I think this just gives us more options and more places to put it, the throwback version.

And when you think about the early days of “RHONY,” and what was missing last season, what do you — as both the executive producer and a fan of the shows — want to see in the new cast? 

I want us to find five new stars that nobody’s ever heard of, who have real connections to each other. Who are friends. I want it to be fun! I want it to be funny. I want it to tick the boxes for everything that we love about the “Housewives.” They’re fun, they’re outspoken, they’re dramatic. They’re aspirational. They’re successful, they’re opinionated. And they’re their own group. We’ve been telling the story really well of this group of women for a long time. Which, by the way, if you really look at it over 13 seasons, very little turnover.

Was there ever a scenario in which you might have maybe brought back Luann and Sonja and Eboni, and then cast three or four new women? A reboot like the one that happened in Season 5? 

I mean, we talked about everything. There were people who really wanted: Let’s just totally start over. And then there were people who were like, “Wait a minute, but what about this group that we’ve invested 13 years in?” I think that’s why this is really listening to everybody.

When you talk about wanting the fans to have input on both of these shows, especially the throwback version, how do you actually figure out what people are saying?

We have a pretty active research department at Bravo. So I will say when research comes to the programming execs, it’s usually not that surprising given what we’re already hearing.

People call me Bravo Andy, and they either blame me or applaud me for everything that happens on Bravo, whether I have something to do with it or not. So I feel especially connected to the audience. I do a Q&A with the “Watch What Happens Live” audience every night before the show, and I hear opinions every night. I feel like a walking focus group that I’m listening to, just based on what’s coming at me all day long.

This interview has been edited and condensed.