Bravo's Shaky Future

When it comes to its programming, what put the cable channel on the map may soon also lead to its downfall.

There’s certainly no need to cry any tears for Bravo... yet. Right now the cable channel is riding high. The channel can currently count among its line-up at least one prestige program, Inside the Actor’s Studio, one classy Emmy-winning reality series, Top Chef, and a true pop culture phenomenon, thanks to its gaggle of catty Real Housewives.

How quickly things have changed. Not so long ago, Bravo was barely known and even then viewed only as a lower-rent A&E. Then, in the early 2000s, with the breakout success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (premiered 2003) and the now departed-for-Lifetime Project Runway (premiered 2004), the channel began to emerge. But it hit its greatest stride of course with the evolution and development of what can only be called the "reality soap opera", a somewhat newly emerged genre best epitomized by the likes of the Real Housewives franchise.

And though other channels are also trafficking in these same types of "lifestyle" shows -- Dance Moms (ugh!) on Lifetime, Gypsy Sisters on TLC and Kardashian-palooza over on E! -- it is certainly Bravo with the Housewives chain and programs like Flipping Out that seems to very much want to dominate this field and have it become the most identified aspect of its brand. In fact, Bravo is so enmeshed in the genre of "Let’s Give Them a Show!" trashy TV, it’s already been parodied on Saturday Night Live.

However, there's ample evidence that it might be time for Bravo to reconsider its programming strategy, or at least expand beyond its endless parade of plastic surgery victims, shallow trophy wives, and various shows devoted to rich people’s problems. Newer reality soaps on the channel like LA Shrinks, Eat Drink Love, Gallery Girls and Princesses: Long Island have all debuted, run and disappeared with little fanfare.

I think even the station’s bread-and-butter programs, the Housewives series, might be running out of steam (though the revolving door of its cast members has helped extent its life). I, for one, am growing tired of the Housewives and their basic weekly plot elements—shop, fight, shop, fight, shop, fight some more.

It's not surprising that Bravo is, for now, largely sticking with what it knows. Bravo’s two most successful recent series follow the tried-and-true formula: Vanderpump Rules, a spinoff of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and The Shahs of Sunset, a more ethnically diverse sort of Housewives program. And though the channel has had good luck with the business rescue series Tabatha Takes Over (with Tabatha doing for hair salons what Jon Taffer does for bars on Bar Rescue) and the pseudo-dating show The Millionaire Matchmaker, its attempts to branch out into other genres, even other reality genres, have not shown much success.

Kathy Griffin’s weekly night-time talk show, simply called Kathy, got cancelled. And, notwithstanding their often above average quality, Bravo has not found success with any of its post-Top Chef reality competition series including the artist-focused series Work of Art, the songwriting contest Platinum Hit, the hairstyling competition Shear Genius, the dance contest Step It Up and Dance and what seems like a half dozen attempts to create another fashion program in the wake of losing Runway.

Sticking with what it believes works, it’s not surprising that Bravo has just recently launched a whole slate of new "reality soaps". These include 100 Days of Summer, about a group of "young, driven and successful Chicagoans" and Blood Sweat and Heels, about a group of "up-and-coming movers and shakers in New York City". These shows follow in the wake of last year’s Newlyweds: The First Year in which Bravo went "where no channel has gone before—deep inside the lives of four newlywed couples…" and Below Deck which followed a "young and single crew, known as ‘yachties,’ [who] live, love and work together onboard a privately owned extravagant yacht."

As can be ascertained from the channel-provided descriptions, all these shows are virtual carbon copies of each other and what else already exists on Bravo, only the names, location and hair colors have changed. Everyone is young, single, blindly ambitious and, more often than not, deeply entitled and decidedly shallow. Just like Bravo likes them! Let the cameras roll! Let the pettiness begin! This endless supply of overindulged, self-centered people and all the interpersonal melodrama around them is surely enough for some viewers to say "Which one is this again?" and just as many viewers to say "ENOUGH!"

I have no doubt Bravo will never run out of cities or vapid people to cast in future Real Housewives spin-offs or its permutations, but there will come a time when this formula is no longer practical or profitable. It's not uncommon for a cable channel to have to reinvent itself over time; A&E went from a repository of arts and entertainment programming to the home of Duck Dynasty. The goal is to change, subtly and strategically, before you are forced to by dwindling audiences.

In that regard, there have been some signs of evolution. Currently, the channel has in development two scripted programs, Heiresses, an hour-long drama from the writer of Pretty Little Liars, and High and Low, a drama set during the 1980s that follows two brothers who open a restaurant together.

We will, of course, have to wait to see how these new proposed, non-reality series fare once each hit the air. And how (if at all) the channel might eventually deal with declining interest in the channel’s major brands, like the Housewives. Just lately the channel has started showing a broadcast network’s complete lack of sentimentality and loyalty when it comes to killing under-performing series even if the show is well-suited to the channel’s identity. For example, after several seasons, The Rachel Zoe Project got shown the door. Is this a sign of things to come? Will a mass purging be taking place sometime down the line? Either way, it's in Bravo’s best interest to try to beat viewers to that particular punch.

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