'Real Housewives': The Guiltiest Pleasure on Television
An inside look at Bravo's juggernaut franchise, a big business built on catfights, controversy and the reliably bad behavior of an economic class that rhymes with "bitch."
Would anyone like a glass of wine?" asks Ramona Singer, the petite, blonde and manic star of Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York. It's lunchtime, and the Pinot Grigio-guzzling 54-year-old -- known for her erratic onscreen behavior and unfiltered commentary -- is doubling (not at anyone's request, mind you) as an on-set bartender during an Oct. 17 photo shoot for this publication. Dressed in a tight-fitting, blue satin cocktail dress, she flits around the Hollywood studio, swishing in and out of dressing rooms, offering anyone within shouting distance a taste of "Ramona," the label she launched in 2010.
"It's half the price-point of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and tastes better," she says of the six-plus bottles her assistant has delivered, before adding, "Blind-tested!"
Real Housewives of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes (a new player to the wine industry herself) stifles a laugh before turning her attention to more important matters -- like choosing the right six-inch Christian Louboutin heels from a collection an assistant is pulling out of a Louis Vuitton roller bag.
"I made it very classic, so it outlives the show," Singer continues, pouring a glass for a Bravo publicist who reluctantly accepts before offering a sample to Caroline Manzo (New Jersey) and Vicki Gunvalson (Orange County). Both decline, barely looking up from their phones.
Kyle Richards (Beverly Hills) breaks from describing her new book (Kyle Richards: Life Is Not a Reality Show) to stare wide-eyed at Singer, who fluffs her shoulder-length coif and struts through a sea of 25-plus groomers, stylists and assistants, leaving a trail of half-empty plastic wine glasses in her wake.
The scene is a cocktail of uncomfortable and funny, with a sprinkling of car crash on top.
But seriously, what were you expecting? Classy? Regal? Singer and her oft-bleached and Botoxed counterparts haven't helped Bravo create its most successful franchise -- valued by one insider at upward of a half-billion dollars -- by emulating Princess Grace. Frequently foul-mouthed, often catfighting and always self-promoting, the women from the original series (The Real Housewives of Orange County) and its six subsequent iterations (New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, D.C., Miami and Beverly Hills) dominate water-cooler discussions, both virtual and real, by showcasing at times the worst of female behavior. Especially the kind of behavior among a certain class that rhymes with "bitch."
Yes, these women are rich (or at least lose more money than most people make in a lifetime). Yet the franchise has become a perfect distraction for viewers in the age of Occupy Anything. It's the kind of train-wreck television that Americans, with all their woes, probably shouldn't be watching; but on any given night, 2 million of them -- mostly women ages 18 to 49 -- are glued to one version or another of the multipronged soap opera, ready to blast, blame or bewail the kind of behavior that's left even Oprah aghast. "Literally, my mouth was open," she said last year of watching Housewives. "I thought, 'This is on television?' "
If the Housewives shock and repel critics and cultural guardians alike, the public loves them. The Nov. 6 season debut of Atlanta drew 2.9 million viewers, the franchise's highest-rated season premiere. (By contrast, the fourth-season premiere of AMC's critical darling Breaking Bad attracted 1.9 million.) Bravo has earned anywhere from $35.6 million to $162 million in the past two years alone from ad sales for Housewives, according to Larry Fried, director of SQAD, a media cost data provider.
"Who would have thought that a fairly modest series would be here six years [later] as our longest-running franchise?" says Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of Bravo's parent, NBC-Universal Entertainment & Digital Networks & Integrated Media. "It's beyond incredible. It's absurd."
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.
"People want to watch rich girls behaving badly," explains Linda Ong, president of brand strategy adviser Truth Consulting. "The franchise started as a real-life Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but became this cultural analysis after the economic breakdown. Every town became a sociological experiment, a very real-time reflection of what was happening to the 1 percent."
But drama, not anthropology, keeps the franchise alive. Offscreen, it's had to deal with the shooting of Ashley Jewell, the former fiance of Real Housewives of Atlanta's Kandi Burruss, who was killed outside a strip club in October 2009; D.C. stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi crashing a White House dinner a month later; the crazed trip to rehab in December by Beverly Hills' Kim Richards -- and, above all, the suicide of occasional Beverly Hills castmember Russell Armstrong, whom the series depicted as a cold businessman in a seemingly loveless marriage.
Bravo and the Housewives were savaged in the wake of Armstrong's death, with calls abounding for the show's second season to be canceled. But ratings for its Sept. 5 debut were up 42 percent from the first-season premiere, which aired less than one month after his suicide. (Armstrong's death, so far, has been addressed only in that debut episode.)
Bad taste? Perhaps. But isn't that in keeping with a brand whose stars disproportionately live in McMansions and catfight as often as they shop?
Despite -- or because of -- these controversies, Housewives continues to flourish in the competitive A.D.D. world of reality TV, where even powerhouse Jersey Shore is beginning to show signs of wear and tear (ratings dropped 13 percent to 6.6 million for the fourth-season finale).
Part of Housewives' success lies in its ruthless willingness to replace its stars. Reported contract threats have been met with firings, and prominent stars have made surprising exits -- such as Jill Zarin, whose contract was not renewed at the end of New York's fifth season (see sidebar, right).
Still, 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 (Atlanta's 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 five) -- not movie-star money, but steady income for people arguably of limited talent.
Bravo has benefited even more. Helped by its other tentpole franchise, the Emmy-winning Top Chef, it has seen profits balloon 122 percent since 2006, from $135 million to more than $300 million, according to SNL Kagan. And the network has done this without dependence on any single producer to sustain its golden goose -- unlike, say, Two and a Half Men's Chuck Lorre or Keeping Up With the Kardashians' Ryan Seacrest. Instead, it doles out responsibility to six different entities. (Only Evolution Media handles two: Orange County and Beverly Hills.)
Notes Zalaznick: "This is probably the only franchise in the world where the franchisees are not produced by the same production company."