'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."
The franchise did begin with one producer, however: Scott Dunlap.
It was 1997, and Dunlap was bored. The former bit-part actor turned branding consultant and entrepreneur was with friends at a private dinner party in Orange County's exclusive Coto de Caza gated neighborhood, listening to them drone on. "You know the drill," recalls the bulky, self-confident 59-year-old, leaning back in a booth at Houston's restaurant in Irvine, Calif. "Everyone was sitting around the table, the ladies blinged-out, talking about family vacations to Tuscany and all bloviating the same thing: 'Our life is perfect.' "
He'd had enough, and blurted out: "You're all going to be dead!"
But when he thought about these friends more, he realized they might be worth studying. His off-color remark segued into his initial Housewives pitch: He wanted to create a short, tongue-in-cheek film reflecting what life was like in the kind of affluent, gated community they all knew so well -- with a twist: "I want it to cover you," he told them.
The short 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, president of Bravo (and now Style Media as well), who gambled heavily on The Real Housewives of Orange County.
The executive was on an upswing thanks to a major rebranding of her network. Having succeeded with its makeover series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo now had set its programming sights on five branches inspired by that show: food, fashion, design, lifestyle and pop culture. After some back and forth, Berwick gave Dunlap license to go into production on an entire series, naming him executive producer. "It was a risky thing to do," he admits with a grin. "Would I have gambled on me as a television producer if I were the network? Probably not."
But the show he proceeded to make was very different from the one Berwick had imagined. With 90 percent of Orange County shot before Bravo saw it, the executive's heart sank when she saw a rough cut, almost causing her to kill the project altogether.
"We wanted something very authentic and they started to film something Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque," she recalls. "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 chose the former. After reshooting the first few episodes and an "incredibly, incredibly long edit," she says, the series finally made it to air with very low expectations.
"It was an experiment," notes one network insider. "They weren't envisioning this huge franchise; the network was just trying to depict a lifestyle. They didn't put a lot of advertising or money into it at first."
Then something unexpected happened: The series struck a chord. And not just with any viewers -- with that prized 30-something audience the network was anxious to cultivate. While Orange County's 2006 freshman season averaged roughly 646,000 viewers, the network saw a 47 percent overall increase in adults 18 to 49, with a 34.4 median age -- making Orange, at the time, its youngest-skewing show.
Bravo quickly upped the series for a second season, but decided to bring in veteran reality producer Doug Ross (Fear Factor, Big Brother), a move that marginalized Dunlap's role, leaving him rich, with a "creator" credit on each episode, but a virtual outsider to the franchise (though he retains an executive producer credit on Orange County).
Dunlap -- not entirely convincingly -- says he has no ill will toward the network that effectively ousted him from the franchise. "My contract's good," he says, glancing down at his soup, his confidence momentarily broken. "I'm happy."
"Scott did a great job at identifying killer cast members," Ross says, "but the network thought with the help of some 'grown-ups' this thing could really blossom."
As the second season began filming, Bravo decided to label Manhattan Moms -- another series it was shooting, about wealthy New York City women trying to get their children into the ultra-competitive private school world -- with the Housewives moniker. "Lauren Zalaznick called and said, 'I'm really thinking about turning this into a franchise,' " says Jennifer O'Connell, executive vp of Shed Media. "[She] asked how I would feel about the show being labeled The Real Housewives of New York City."
Much of Moms already had been filmed when that decision took place, and the cast didn't discover the name change until the first press photos were being shot. "We went to check out the artwork on the computer and it said Real Housewives of New York City," remembers Zarin. "At first we were a little disappointed, to be honest."
Soon after, production house True Media came to Bravo with a similar, Atlanta-based show, while Bravo shrewdly hired Sirens Media to produce a New Jersey version -- and, just like that, a franchise was born. New York premiered in March 2008 and Atlanta in October.
As daytime drama transitioned out of the marketplace and the 90210 generation matured into husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, Bravo unwittingly had stumbled upon television's next guilty pleasure: a vehicle that showcased the lives of a handful of spoiled, consistently imperfect women whose only real distinction was the city in which they reside -- and their unerring ability to behave badly.
With New Jersey's 2009 launch, the franchise reached beyond Bravo's core audience of 30-something women, bringing men and older viewers into the fold. Its success peaked when it drew an astonishing 3.8 million viewers for its second-season reunion show in 2010.
There've been glitches, inevitably -- not least the bikinis that had to be digitally altered when NBC-Universal chose to run four of its series in daytime syndication. "They had to paint larger bikini bottoms on some of the women!" Berwick admits, noting: "Syndication is an interesting beast. It's an older, more conservative audience. Our viewers just aren't at home during the day."
The younger, more advertiser-friendly audience has stayed true, however, even in the face of copycats including VH1's Basketball Wives and Logo's The A-List. That's partly thanks to Bravo's exhaustive casting process and partly thanks to the considerable money it invests. "Bravo has been very supportive of the productions financially," Ross says. "Everyone wants to copy the magic, but so many imitators look gritty and feel scripted."
But isn't Housewives just a little bit scripted, too? Orange County's Peggy Tanous certainly believes so: "We started meeting with producers to discuss storylines," she 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." Ross concedes that the Housewives are often asked to plan events (read: group seances or $50,000 children's birthday parties), but vehemently denies any staging: "The audience could sniff that a mile away, so why even bother?"
"Honestly, sometimes I wish they would do what I tell them," adds Shed Media's O'Connell. "I wish I had that kind of puppeteering power. But it's the women who ultimately drive the train."