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When Andy Cohen and the rest of the Bravo team recently moved their offices to the 46th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, his picture wall — transferred carefully from his old office — went up first.
“I like an unlikely duo,” Cohen says of the various odd-couple pairings on the wall behind his desk. There’s Dolly Parton with Henry Kissinger. There’s Dan Rather crouching in the Monument Valley, Utah, desert to snap a picture of Cohen while the two were working on a 1997 Don Imus profile for CBS News. There’s Anderson Cooper, Cohen’s friend, with NeNe Leakes, erstwhile Atlanta housewife and current Celebrity Apprentice mean girl.
The unconventional coupling is a hallmark of Watch What Happens Live, which has Cohen alternately playing referee, interlocutor and instigator during live interviews with various “Bravolebrities” as well as random guests from his bulging social Rolodex.
But it is also evident in the executive suite at Bravo where Cohen — who embodies the network’s socially ravenous ethos — reports to Berwick, a petite Brit with an arch sense of humor, posh accent and a speaking voice several decibels lower than Cohen’s.
“Andy is an optimist. Frances is a pragmatist,” says Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of NBCUniversal Entertainment & Digital Networks & Integrated Media, which owns Bravo. “A straight, international woman and a Midwestern gay man — that forms a nice view of the world,” she adds. “Andy is topical, driven to wake up and see what happened while he was sleeping. Frances is worldview: ‘Let’s take this on, but not jump off course because of it.’ “
Frances Berwick is Bravo’s practical implementer and Cohen its resident pop-culture connoisseur; the network’s success seems to demonstrate the virtue of opposites. From its breakout hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to a seemingly endless parade of Real Housewives, Bravo has led a reality revolution that’s turned guilty-pleasure TV into social anthropology. “We’re recognized for reality that has a high-quality sheen,” Berwick says.
Bravo is coming off its fifth year of growth across all platforms, finishing 2010 ranked No. 13 among ad-supported cable networks in the critical 18-49 demographic; it’s currently at No. 10. But beyond the frothy marketing campaigns and clever wordplay (Bravo execs call their viewers “affluencers”) is a strict adherence to brand ideology. Here the two are of one mind.
Says Cohen, “We’ve gotten so good at developing to our brand — agonizingly so for some producers — we are completely sure before we greenlight something.”
At Bravo, adds Berwick, “there is a very clear association between the shows and the network and that’s not always the case. You can have a very well-known show, and people don’t know what network it’s on.”
That brand discipline spurs sampling across the network’s programs and platforms and keeps its shows top-of-mind in an increasingly noisy media landscape. Four years ago, Bravo had two nights of original programming on the air; now there are five. Eleven shows will bow this year alone, including Platinum Hit — a songwriting competition show featuring American Idol alum Kara DioGuardi and singer-songwriter Jewel — premiering May 30, and Mad Fashion, which has Project Runway Season 4 standout Chris March executing zany fashion challenges, bowing this summer. Also on tap in 2011: a Flipping Out spinoff with OCD designer Jeff Lewis; It’s a Brad Brad World, featuring Rachel Zoe’s former assistant Brad Goreski; and Most Eligible: Dallas, an heir apparent to the Real Housewives franchise that revolves around the dating lives of over-the-top Texans.
For all of Bravo’s success in building a broad array of programs (the network targets five “programming buckets” — fashion, food, beauty, design and pop culture), it’s those bickering Housewives who define Bravo in the media and Twitterverse (New Jersey’s Danielle Staub’s brushes with the law and sex tape infamy, D.C.’s Michaele and Tareq Salahi’s brazen state dinner crashing). The Real Housewives of Atlanta is the top-rated spinoff in the franchise, averaging 3.6 million viewers an episode for its most recent season, the show’s third.
But those Housewives also take some managing, and that, of course, has fallen to Cohen. “It’s a big part of your job,” Berwick tells him. Cohen, in fact, has literally been in the middle of physical arguments between Jersey housewives on WWHL.
“Oh, there are life lessons in those, too,” laughs Berwick, adding that The Real Housewives programs “are essentially fun shows. But it’s their whole lives, warts and all. We don’t sanitize it. And we don’t judge them. There’s no one in the middle telling the audience what they should think about these women.”
Neither Berwick nor Cohen will be pinned down about whether their latest iteration — The Real Housewives of Miami, averaging a modest 1.4 million viewers per episode — will be Bravo’s final Housewives spinoff. And the network recently picked up a second season of Beverly Hills and a fourth season of Atlanta.
The counterpoint to Cohen’s picture wall may be Berwick’s awards shelf, which includes an Emmy for Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List and a Peabody for a documentary about jazz label Blue Note, reflecting her ability to traverse high and low culture. While there are no more high-art documentaries on Bravo, there is Sarah Jessica Parker’s art world competition show Work of Art and James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, Bravo’s longest-running original at 17 seasons.
“Although they are so dissimilar-seeming when you shake one hand and shake the other,” says Zalaznick, “they are both straightforward, driven, results-oriented people. And their points of difference are where true diversity comes into play at Bravo.”
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