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Tracking Bravo's Rise

Bravo's rise from artsy pay channel to network of the hip and smart 9/30/2006 08:05:00 AM Eastern

On the final day of New York's Fall Fashion Week, the Promenade tent in Manhattan's Bryant Park is abuzz as paparazzi jostle to shoot the likes of actress Kristen Johnston and designer Cynthia Rowley. Seated front and center, the always politic Bravo network President Lauren Zalaznick chats with NBC Universal TV Group chief Jeff Zucker and his wife as they await the morning's event, a showdown among the final four contestants on Bravo's designer competition Project Runway.

In her minimalist ensemble chic (black slacks and Prada T-shirt), Zalaznick, 43, looks right at home among the glitterati. And with Project Runway about to take its third trip down the Fashion Week catwalk, so does Bravo.

For a network that began life more than 25 years ago as a pay channel devoted to performing-arts programming, Bravo has come a long way. Once the bastion of opera, ballet and repertory theater, it's now the network of Runway host and supermodel Heidi Klum, bad-boy R&B singer Bobby Brown and the Fab Five.

Since being acquired by NBC in 2002, Bravo has morphed into a decidedly more middle-brow programmer, with celebrity-studded unscripted series like Runway, Top Chef and Being Bobby Brown aimed squarely at viewers in the advertiser-prized 18-49 demographic. But while other networks have attracted new—and younger—viewers with similar programming changes, Zalaznick and her team are zeroing in on a select group of smart, affluent viewers, with an aggressive marketing strategy positioning the once buttoned-down network as fabulously hip and positively off the charts with buzz.

And there are signs that it's working. Project Runway, which celebrates the creative process—and cut-throat competition—behind clothing design, is the most watched series in Bravo's history, with an episode last month drawing a record 4.1 million viewers. The network's third-quarter primetime audience was its highest ever, with an average 627,000 viewers.

Bravo's net ad revenue is projected to grow by 24% next year, to $213.1 million, and cash flow is estimated to jump 28.4%, to $165.4 million, according to Kagan Research.

But while ratings drive revenue, Bravo professes to be more concerned with being attuned to the Zeitgeist. Zalaznick says that being the most viewed cable network—an honor currently held by corporate sibling USA Network, which averages more than three times as many viewers in the 18-49 demo—is less important to Bravo than maintaining its upper-crust status.

“We define ourselves by the audience who likes to watch us, and we're the number-one most upscale cable entertainment network—period,” Zalaznick says. “They like to do things advertisers need them to do. They like to travel. They like to buy things. They like new cars. They drink expensive beverages.”

Indeed, Bravo has the greatest concentration of primetime viewers 18-49 and 25-54 who have completed at least four years of college and live in households that make more than $100,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. Advertising from new clients has grown 20% in the past year, with such brands as BMW, Bacardi rum and Merck pharmaceuticals looking to reach the highest concentration of young, affluent and educated viewers of any ad-supported cable entertainment network.

Turning a corner

Selling advertisers on its affluent audience is a far cry from Bravo's founding mission when it was launched by Cablevision Systems in December 1980 as a two-night-a-week pay channel (packaged with a three-night-a-week soft-core channel called Escapade). Back then, typical programming included a documentary on folk group the Weavers, a symphonic tribute to composer Aaron Copland, and a performance of The Greek Passion by the Indiana University Opera Theater.

The network later added movies and, in the mid 1990s, became a basic-cable channel with PBS-style sponsorships before going fully ad-sponsored in 1998. In November 2002, Cablevision sold Bravo for $1.25 billion to NBC, the last big broadcast company to acquire a general-entertainment cable network.

“It gave a lot of the traditional network players a chance to wet their feet in cable,” says Jeff Gaspin, an NBC U president who was then NBC's head of alternative series, specials, long-form and program strategy and became Bravo's president as well. “Those that had played in the network sandbox for so long all of a sudden had this little-sister asset that we invited them to participate in.”

A turning point for the network came in the summer of 2003, with the premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Frances Berwick, who arrived at Bravo from Britain's groundbreaking arts programmer Channel 4 in 1996 and is now executive VP of programming and production, had already overseen production and testing of the pilot for the reality makeover series when NBC entered the picture. Although Queer Eye proved to be a critical hit, it was NBC's marketing boost—which included spots and an airing of the series on its broadcast network—that helped turn the show and its makeover team, the Fab Five, into cultural phenomena. Bravo's average rating jumped from a 0.3 to a 3.0 nearly overnight.

Queer Eye changed the network completely, from head to toe,” says Amy Introcaso-Davis, a Lifetime veteran who joined the programming team in 2002 and is now VP of production and development. “Suddenly, people were pitching us much more forward kinds of shows. Before Queer Eye, people weren't even really thinking about us for reality kinds of shows.”

With NBC's support, Gaspin, Berwick and the team doubled Bravo's original programming with irreverent shows that offset the earnestness of Inside the Actors Studio, the one holdover original series that remains on the schedule. Among the pitches they greenlighted was Project Runway. But before the show would debut, Bravo was in for a refashioning of its own. When NBC acquired Vivendi Universal Entertainment in May 2004, Gaspin's star rose within NBC to include oversight of its other cable entertainment networks, opening the door for Zalaznick.

A friend of Gaspin's from VH1, where they worked together on programming, Zalaznick had been running Universal's critically embraced yet viewer-neglected cable network Trio. After graduating from Brown University, she had produced independent films in the 1990s (including the controversial Kids) and was an executive at VH1, where she channeled her love of pop culture into shows like Pop-Up Video and Bands on the Run.

Zalaznick joined Bravo while staying on at Trio and later brought on Trio colleagues Andy Cohen, David Serwatka and Jason Klarman to fill key posts. She went on to invest in new fashion- and celebrity-oriented shows like Blowout, set in a hair salon, and Being Bobby Brown. But in late 2004, Zalaznick and her team watched in horror as Runway's premiere drew only some 350,000 viewers and logged a dismal 0.2 rating in the key demos—a troubling stumble for a network trying to move beyond its Queer Eye success.

Angst-filled huddles followed as Zalaznick and Co. fought to save the show, unleashing an NBC-funded marketing blitz and blanketing the schedule with Runway marathons. It worked. The show finished the season 468% over its premiere.

Zalaznick drove her staff hard, instituting exhaustive meetings and giving input on everything from rough cuts to press releases. Although she has a reputation for blunt honesty and a stern demeanor, colleagues say that beneath the veneer of imperiousness is an acute sense of humor.

“She has this total straight face and keeps it, but she's actually devastatingly funny,” says Tad Low, whose Spin the Bottle production company created Pop Up Video. “She doles out her humor as dry wit, which I think she uses as a test for who gets it and who doesn't in the room. Her secret to success is that she judges the intellect of people in the room based on who can figure out her sphinx-like humor.”

Says Jane Lipsitz, a former protégée at VH1 whose company, Magical Elves, produces Runway, “We're never all sunshine and roses; there's plenty of healthy debate. But at the end of the day, Bravo is very respectful of our creative process.”

Adds Randy Barbato, whose World of Wonder company produces Bravo's series Million Dollar Listing, “As a producer, you feel inspired there. There are jobs you do for the check. There are jobs you do because you love it, and that's what Bravo's about. The people there are smart. From the top down, it's a network filled with smarties.”

Since Zalaznick took over, Bravo has expanded its reach to 80 million homes. Although the network's revenue accounts for roughly just 2% of NBC U's annual takings—a fraction of what corporate siblings USA Network and Sci Fi Channel contribute—Bravo has been “feeling the love” from NBC U of late, says Zalaznick, with an infusion of “eight figures, maybe more, over the course of the next five years.”

Aspiring to be a “watercooler network”

Over the past summer, Bravo relaunched its Website with microsites for each show. It also unveiled gay-oriented OutzoneTV.com with longtime partner Gay.com and BrilliantButCancelled.com, a broadband re­incarnation of a Trio programming block. In the coming months, Trio, which folded last November, will be resurrected as a broadband channel.

In addition to mining the unscripted competition genre with upcoming Top Designer, to be hosted by Todd Oldham, the network is taking a risk on a talk-show pilot that matches comic Joan Rivers with a quintet of male co-hosts. The New York tabloids have everyone from former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevy to Bravo's own Andy Cohen as co-hosts. And, on Oct. 2, the network begins running episodes of its new acquisition, HBO drama Six Feet Under.

And as with Runway, Bravo will market the shows furiously in an effort to generate that elusive thing called “buzz.”

“We've become a talked-about 'watercooler' network,” Berwick says, “and that is incredibly gratifying.”

Says Klarman, senior VP of marketing and brand strategy, “It's all about the buzz.”

Indeed, the preoccupation with getting people to talk about Bravo has made its way into the décor of the network's offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, with a wall mural evoking Bravo's “talk-bubble” graphic and a sketch of a watercooler on the glass pane of Zalaznick's office door.

The network has gone so far as to turn Cohen, its senior VP, production and programming, into a one-man buzz operation, if not an outright Bravo mascot, sending him to cable news shows and The View. His dishy postings to his blog (one of 16 at BravoTV.com) about the behind-the-scenes drama at Runway or his failure to catch actress Lindsay Lohan doing “blowcaine” at the Emmys are often picked up by gossip site Defamer.

Whether or not the strategy is working is hard to say. Runway fans, at least, are talking about their show. After the Fashion Week event, fans eager to discuss the details posted 953 comments in 24 hours to Bloggingprojectrunway.blogspot.com. And the network says that visits to BravoTV.com have increased from about 9 million page views in August 2004 to some 40 million this past August.

“We're a buzzy place, not because we toot our own horn and stir up buzz where there is none,” Zalaznick says. “It's not a manipulation, it's organic.”

Perhaps. But in a competitive and rapidly changing media world, where success—and buzz—is fleeting, Zalaznick and her team will have to work hard to keep Bravo hip and in the spotlight.

As Heidi Klum tells her Runway contestants about fashion, “one day, you're in; the next, you may be out.”

 

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