Posted at 1:00 a.m. ET, Feb. 23
The cratering U.S. economy has claimed many victims, such as the moribund auto industry, bipartisanship and overextended Floridians. But conspicuous-consumption reality television has remained virtually untouched by the recession.
Looking to capitalize on that trend, VH1 is working on a reality concept featuring the moneyed ski bunnies of Aspen, Colo. A crew was in the wealthy ski hamlet last month shooting a casting reel at the trendy Sky Bar.
A VH1 spokesman described potential characters as “some of the town's most compelling female residents grappling with big life decisions.”
And Bravo has been filming Manhattan private school teens for an East Coast version of MTV's Laguna Beach. The show is set to premiere later this year and will track the exploits of real-life gossip girls and guys.
At Bravo, where a disproportionate amount of the genre can be found, the network's Real Housewives franchise is racking up some of its best ratings ever. Housewives now boasts three iterations: the original Orange County as well as Atlanta and New York. The debut last week of the second season of The Real Housewives of New York scored a series high in total viewers (1.64 million) and the 18-49 demo (1.23 million), up 86% over last season in the demo and 99% in total viewers.
The Real Housewives of Orange County, which had its fourth-season finale last week, is enjoying its highest-rated year ever. Meanwhile, the ladies of Atlanta, a mostly black cast who seem to shop even more than their counterparts in California and New York, was the network's first docu-series to crack two million viewers in the 18-49 demographic.
“That was one of the first reality shows that showed really wealthy black women living large,” says Andy Cohen, Bravo's senior VP of original programming and development.
An Atlanta reunion special that aired last November, when the financial crisis was hitting one of its disquieting nadirs, was the highest-rated Real Housewives telecast ever (2.18 million viewers in the demo, with 3 million total viewers).
In short, the poster girls for conspicuous consumption are scoring record ratings while Americans are losing their jobs in record numbers. Viewers seem to like them even more now than they did when the Dow was at 14,000.
“I think people have invested in our characters,” Cohen says. “And we're not in the business of making depressing, sad television. We like our shows fun and oversized.”
New York cast member Bethenny Frankel, a celebrity chef, described The Real Housewives of Atlanta as “Cribs meets Jerry Springer” on the network's blog. “In this dreadful financial climate, it is particularly unbelievable to watch this level of conspicuous consumption,” she wrote.
If Frankel acknowledged the current fear and loathing infecting society, a few other housewives have been materially impacted by the economy, relatively speaking. Orange County cast member Jeana Keough, who came to Southern California from Milwaukee with acting aspirations but now sells high-end properties in southern Orange County, “has had a real slowdown in her real estate business,” Cohen says.
So, too, have the agents of Bravo's Million Dollar Listing. “They're selling houses for $14 million, not $25 million,” he says. “It's all relative.”
The current season of The Real Housewives of New York began shooting last summer, when the living was still easy-ish. As the season wears on, viewers will detect small cracks in the gilded veneer—but not enough to reform the housewives' vainglorious ways.
Says one reality producer: “Housewives isn't as much about them being rich as it is about them being spoiled, senseless and self-obsessed. No matter what the economy is, people are always going to tune in to that.”