That's rich! Downturn in economy leads to upturn for Bravo TV

by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

3 March 2009

The Real Housewives of Orange County 

So what happens to a cable channel devoted to chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and famous when the economy goes into the toilet?

In the case of Bravo, it actually gets richer.

The upwardly mobile, gay-friendly lifestyle channel owned by NBC Universal reported last week that ratings for February were the highest in Bravo’s history.

While Hollywood develops sitcoms about people looking for work, a record 2 million viewers watched the fourth season of “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” the ironically named series about shopaholic trophy brides that Bravo has used to create a year-round franchise with spinoffs filmed in New York City, Atlanta and, coming in April, New Jersey.

More than 2.5 million viewers this month tuned in for the latest “Top Chef” competition, in which aspiring gourmets cooking the kinds of meals that would cost the average American the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries.

And Kathy Griffin, the onetime sitcom sidekick whose career was so perilously close to obscurity that she turned it into a Bravo series, “My Life on the D-List,” has signed a book deal to write her memoir for a reported $2.2 million - a figure that led the Defamer blog to observe, “We fear that the book industry may be losing its grip on reality.”

Indeed, the media have been almost uniformly brutal toward Bravo since Wall Street started to go south. Bloggers and print critics have found it incongruous that a TV channel would be celebrating “real housewives” who can afford spa treatments and second homes while millions of actual housewives are getting pink slips and seeing their ARM payments skyrocket.

The New York Post tut-tutted the Feb. 17 season premiere of the NYC “Housewives,” in which Alex McCord and husband Simon van Kampen spent $8,000 on clothing at a Hamptons boutique, noting that the couple’s “extravagance will likely strike viewers as prodigal in the extreme.”

Another critic wrote, “What I found amusing a year ago is no longer so laughable. It makes me wonder if Bravo’s wealth-based programming has jumped the Louis Vuitton-monogrammed polo pony.”

So who’s behind the times - Bravo, or its proletarian critics? I decided to ask Lauren Zalaznick, who oversees Bravo for NBC Universal and whose candor and thoughtfulness set her apart from most top TV executives. I read her the polo-pony quote and she said:

“What’s so amazing and great is there’s a very, very, very external and unemotional arbiter of that statement and that arbiter is the television audience. And they are telling us that they’re not done with us in a very simple way - in fairly extraordinary ratings growth and higher levels of engagement across the platforms that we design for them to tell us what they think.”

She’s referring not only to the bravotv.com Web site but to one of Bravo’s highest-rated time periods of the week: the “Info Frame” hour at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday nights, when a popular show is repeated with a blue frame that pops up announcing contests, polls and feedback that viewers text in throughout the hour.

“So not only are they enjoying (these shows) the first time around with their aspirational qualities, beautiful casting, lovely locations, terrific houses, delicious food and stylish clothes - they’re also enjoying all of the information we share about the program,” said Zalaznick.

As for the charge that she’s indifferent to the shifting economic tides, Zalaznick points to the moment when she made her first programming adjustment based on the collapsing economy. It was the spring of 2007 - long before the recession even officially began.

“We were shooting the first season of a show called ‘Million Dollar Listing,’” she recalled. “We wanted to have both houses close at the end of the show. We wanted resolution.” Bravo had a successful show about reselling high-end homes, “Flipping Out,” and this seemed like a natural extension.

Just one problem: “The houses were not closing,” said Zalaznick. “It took forever to shoot.” Eventually, the format of “Million Dollar Listing” changed with the times: Instead of both deals closing every episode, usually only one would.

Things had gotten worse by year’s end, when shooting began on the second season of “Flipping Out.” The realtor, Jeff Lewis, was going into debt because so few homes were moving. He wound up taking jobs as a remodeler. Again, the show’s format was adjusted.

“So not only do we not have our heads in the sand now, we openly embraced the tide of change,” Zalaznick said.

Meanwhile, she and her team of executives “were relentlessly, maybe obsessively, talking about the notion of affluence and what our programming is really about.”

And the takeaway was that people who liked Bravo were less interested in the shiny things that money could buy than in the type of person whose career made it possible to acquire those shiny things.

“We really program to people who esteem the notion of jobs and careers as what makes them more affluent. We program to people who enjoy thinking about what their lifestyle of hard work is going to yield in terms of personal relationships and stuff they appropriate.”

Speaking of relationships, ratings have zoomed this month for the second season of “Millionaire Matchmaker,” a documentary-style show filmed at the Millionaire’s Club, a California firm “where successful men come to meet their beautiful and intelligent wives or girlfriends.” It airs at 10 p.m. EST Thursdays on Bravo.

In a twist apparently unrelated to the shrinking pool of millionaires, matchmaker Patti Stanger this season agreed to conduct a manhunt on behalf of a wealthy woman - thus reversing the usual gender roles on the show.

Kathy Griffin, are you watching?

//Mixed media