BY Jason Lamphier
September 09 2009 7:00 AM ET
In the game of crafting content with a gay sensibility, Bravo hits the disco ball out of the paisley park. Its landmark series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy transformed the channel from an artsy-fartsy niche network to an audacious voice that captured the nation’s post–Will & Grace zeitgeist. With its brazen camp and cattiness, its strong focus on style and etiquette, and its shrewdly veiled diversity training, Queer Eye prefigured the programming that would come to define Bravo.
Queer Eye’s less successful gay-specific partner, Boy Meets Boy (both premiered in July 2003, but Queer Eye ran for five cycles), demonstrated that a gay-as-novelty recipe wouldn’t be enough to sustain even gay viewers’ attention indefinitely. But in December 2004, Bravo struck ratings gold with the premiere of what would become its most popular series to date: Project Runway. Gays had pivotal roles on the show as key players in the fashion world -- the competition did not call attention to the sexual orientation of mentor Tim Gunn, judge Michael Kors, or the contestants, but simply depicted them without much comment or confessional hand-wringing. Bravo continued introducing gay characters on nearly every new show that followed, from Work Out’s hot-tempered fitness trainer Jackie Warner to prickly real estate investor Jeff Lewis on Flipping Out to the endless cavalcade of queer contestants on Top Chef, Shear Genius, The Fashion Show, and now on its latest competition series, Launch My Line, hosted by Dsquared2’s gay twin-brother duo Dan and Dean Caten, in which established designers pair up with industry professionals to create a fashion line.
“Three or four years ago we looked at our shows and put them into categories,” Cohen says later in his office, taking a short break between meetings. “Funnily enough, those categories were the five categories the Fab 5 characters on Queer Eye symbolized: food, fashion, beauty, design, and pop culture.” These clearly defined themes soon became Bravo’s modus operandi for the brand, sealing the deal with its gay viewers but also freeing it from any sort of gay confines. Bravo proved it was more than a one-hit wonder and that these five motifs could manifest themselves in programs like Project Runway and Top Chef -- shows that weren’t exclusively gay.
Cohen recognizes the “gay channel” tag informally but firmly affixed to Bravo, but modifies it a bit, calling it a “bi” network. Unlike the MTV Networks–owned channel Logo, and here! TV (owned by The Advocate’s parent company, Here Media), which both create programming specifically for and about gay people, Cohen and Bravo’s major players claim it doesn’t matter who their series “go home with” -- they are merely holding a mirror up to their audience.
“I feel like we’re gay in 2009 in a way that so many people are gay in 2009, which is that we happen to be gay,” Cohen says. “We’re not hitting you over the head with people’s sexuality. Millions of women and their husbands are huge fans of Flipping Out or Work Out, and they’re saying, ‘Wow, you know, these people happen to be gay.’ Brad [Goreski] on The Rachel Zoe Project happens to be gay, but the show isn’t about him dating men. That is such a powerful way to present gay people in 2009.”
“We don’t present a world as we want it to be,” says Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal’s Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, which include Bravo. Like Cohen, Zalaznick reemphasizes Bravo’s observational approach to gay culture. “There’s no plotted agenda. We present a view of the world as we see it and inhabit it. That’s a very big distinction.”
Randy Barbato, who executive-produced Bravo’s real estate series Million Dollar Listing, agrees. “Bravo has had a history of being inclusive, and not just on a reverential level,” he says. “There have been a variety of gays and lesbians on their network, from gays who are highly functional to gays who are highly dysfunctional. It’s a real, modern approach to being gay from a modern gay: Andy Cohen.”
Bravo has clarified that it isn’t targeting a queer audience, but rather “the affluencers,” well-educated, fashion-conscious viewers with a fondness for intelligent pop culture. They include the Andy Cohens of the world but also the straight married couples who have fallen for gay Bravolebrities and make up a considerable portion of the network’s demographic.
“Our audience absolutely has a gay core,” Zalaznick says. “But more than that, we know a much bigger circle of our viewers has an enthusiastic, sophisticated, entertainment-based, aspirational view of their own lives, whether they’re gay or straight. We have our PTA trendsetters, our ‘Wills’ and ‘Graces.’ We’re building on an urbane, witty viewer base, but when you recognize and serve a gay audience at your core, it’s a winning formula.”
It’s a winning formula for Bravo’s young, plugged-in audience, but it’s also great for business. About 25% of Bravo viewers make more than $100,000 a year -- an advertiser’s fantasy scenario. According to Nielsen Media Research, 53% of Bravo viewers remember the names of brands featured on Bravo, and 20% say that after seeing a brand on the network, they have a better impression of the product. The network acquired nearly 100 new advertisers last year and posted double-digit revenue growth, making 2008 its best sales year ever.