Catfights, Controversy, Firings: The Untold Story Behind Bravo's Half Billion Dollar 'Real Housewives' Franchise

2:15 PM PST 01/04/2012 by THR Staff
Andrew Southam

The latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter, featuring a reality all-star cover shoot, takes an inside look at the cable network's surprise juggernaut and how the one-percenters (and wannabes) who populate the shows have turned being bad into big business.

The road to Bravo’s estimated half-billion dollar Real Housewives franchise is paved with decisions based on excellent gut instincts, some missteps, and a trail of ex-cast members.

Through it all, the series based on women whose most bankable talent often is behaving badly, drives the success of the NBCUniversal cable network. Even one of its highest placed executives understands how some might shake their heads at the show’s success, but they have the numbers to prove that the opinions of critics and cultural guardians do not matter. In the past two years alone, there has been between $35.6 to $162 million in ad revenue; and ratings among ad-coveted females 18-49, which can reach two million viewers on any given night.

“Who would have thought that a fairly modest series would be here six years [later] as our longest running franchise?” Lauren Zalaznick, Chairman of Bravo’s parent company, NBCUniversal Entertainment & Digital Networks, and Integrated Media tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's beyond incredible. It's absurd."

VIDEO: Behind the Scenes of the 'Real Housewives' Cover Shoot

"We wanted something very authentic and they started to film something Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque," Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media, recalls of the first incarnation of The Real Housewives of Orange County. "It required a whole revision, so we came to a point where we had to decide whether to sink more money into it or just pull the plug." She gambled heavily on the project and went ahead with what would later become the beginning of Bravo’s successful Housewives franchise.

THR senior writer Leslie Bruce delves into the evolution of the Real Housewives franchise from an initial short film proposal set in a gated Orange County community to its six subsequent incarnations and two spinoffs, as well as its revolving door of cast members. Some of the revelations from this week’s THR cover story, which features an all-star ensemble of Orange County’s Vicki Gunvalson, New York’s Ramona Singer, New Jersey’s Caroline Manzo, Atlanta’s NeNe Leakes and Beverly Hills’ Kyle Richards on the cover:

PHOTOS: The Hollywood Reporter Cover Story Gallery

SIX-FIGURE SALARIES AND COUNTLESS PRODUCT DEALS HAVE MADE THE CAST MEMBERS RICH
Bravo offers each of the Housewives an unparalleled opportunity to develop her own brand. Combined, the Housewives have published more than a dozen books; received product deals from makeup and jewelry to sex toys and alcohol; average well over 100,000 Twitter followers (Leakes has nearly 600,000); and receive an approximate six-figure salary each season (the New York cast is drawing a $250,000 payday for Season 5) — not movie-star money, but steady income for people arguably of limited talent. Bethenny Frankel is the best example of this with several bestselling books, her own spinoff series, and the ability to promote her Skinny Girl margarita brand on Bravo, which she sold for $120 million.

HOUSEWIVES TO BE FIRST EVER DOCU-SOAP TO FRANCHISE INTERNATIONALLY
With Housewives international formats already airing in Greece and Israel, and a Vancouver spinoff to bow in March, NBCUniversal says casting is under way for a Housewives offshoot in France (a make-or-break market because of its broader reach and its potential for greater ad revenue), with Australia’s Gold Coast, Asia (Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong) and the U.K. soon to follow — meaning that Housewives would be television’s first docu-soap to franchise overseas. Bravo’s half-billion-dollar empire could soon be worth multiples of that.

ANDY COHEN ON THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS SURROUNDING RUSSELL ARMSTRONG’S SUICIDE
After Armstrong’s death, Cohen was among a handful of crucial players who determined how The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills would proceed. When news erupted that the 47-year-old father of three had hanged himself, it not only sent shockwaves through Bravo and NBCUniversal, but through the entire reality-television industry. In the following days, even some cast members called for the cancellation of the show’s second season altogether, says one production insider. “We talked endlessly,” Cohen acknowledges. “In the end, we decided to capture what happened as sensitively as we could.”

OUSTED NYC HOUSEWIFE JILL ZARIN SPEAKS; SAYS SHE SHOULD GET RESIDUALS FOR FINDING BETHENNY FRANKEL.
Zarin was part of a bloodbath of firings last Sept. that found her and three other New York City cast members cut from the franchise. Zarin, one of the series’ original cast members, describes the day she found out her contract wouldn’t be renewed. And while she has several irons in the fire, Zarin says she doesn’t fully believe she was compensated for helping to make the New York series a success. “I didn’t just help make the show popular; I cast it,” Zarin tells THR. “I brought in Bethenny [Frankel], and I don’t get a percentage of anything she spins off. The first, second and third season salary pretty much added up to the fourth season. I worked really hard."

OC HOUSEWIFE CLAIMS SHOW'S DRAMA IS FORCED BY PRODUCERS
“We started meeting with producers to discuss storylines,” former Orange County housewife Peggy Tanous confesses, maintaining this was behind her decision to leave the series. “I started getting anxiety thinking about all the forced drama that does happen on occasion.” Producer Doug Ross concedes that the Housewives are often asked to plan events (read: group séances or $50,000 children’s birthday parties), but vehemently denies any staging: “The audience could sniff that a mile away, so why even bother?”

EVEN AT THE PHOTO SHOOTS, THE WOMEN CATFIGHTED
THR went behind the scenes at a shoot for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills where new cast member Brandi Glanville pretended not to hear the snickering coming from cast mates Kyle Richards’ and Lisa Vanderpump’s direction. "One of the girls asked me what I think of Brandi," Vanderpump whispers loudly to Richards. "And I said, 'Who?' " The pair burst into laughter. And during THR’s cover shoot, Ramona Singer tried to peddle her Ramona brand wine to anyone who’d take a cup and while discussing its high quality, Leakes stifled a laugh. Later, she offered Manzo and Gunvalson a sample. They declined, barely looking up from their mobile phones.

THE TRUE STORY BEHIND THE CREATION OF THE FRANCHISE.
The franchise grew out of an idea for a short film based in a rich, gated Orange County community from entrepreneur Scott Dunlap. The film never got made. But it was the genesis of an idea that, a decade later, would become a pop-culture phenomenon, following an eight-year battle and countless rejections that ultimately, in 2005, led Dunlap to Frances Berwick. Ross was made the series' first executive producer, but his version of the show didn't meet with Berwick's vision for it. After some retooling, the series aired and became a hit in its first season. But, Dunlap lost his say in the second season when he was replaced by Doug Ross, a veteran reality producer (Fear Factor, Big Brother). Though, Dunlap retained his creator credit on the OC series.

Read the full THR cover story here.

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