“We’ve been able to demonstrate that an advertiser will do better in proximity to Bravo, specifically if they’re trying to reach that upscale audience,” says Berwick, who as Bravo’s executive VP and general manager coined the term affluencers. But does the network ever promote or defend its gay sensibility to prospective advertisers? “I don’t think we’re perceived as a gay network,” Berwick says. “We’re perceived as a gay-friendly network. Advertisers targeting gays can buy into a network like Logo because they’re going after a specific niche, but they’re probably also going to target Bravo, which will include some of the same viewers. If you buy into the concept of 500-plus-channels and ‘more is better,’ then you have networks that are micro-targeted, others that are broadly targeted. Bravo is in a great place because we’re both.”

Perhaps owing to the idea that Bravo executives don’t see the network as gay, Cohen acknowledges there’s room for more than one option for gay television. “There are more channels than I can count for music and news and pop culture, so why can’t gays have a choice? We’re fickle -- we need it.” He does assert that Bravo is vigilant about gay issues, tackling them from every angle. “We tell every story that happens under our watchful eye,” he says. “There’s a bachelor/bachelorette challenge on Top Chef this season that angers some of our gay chefs because they can’t get married -- we tell that story. We follow Jeff Lewis and Jackie Warner and Madison Hildebrand [of Million Dollar Listing] -- those are stories of gay people in America.” On Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-list recently, Griffin went door-to-door advocating for gay rights and raised money for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Transitional Living Program, befriending youths in that program. Cohen continues, “One of the things I love about Bravo is that we started with a groundbreaking show like Queer Eye, then we eventually arrived at a season of Project Runway where of the eight guys, seven were gay.”

That show, which once defined the network and arguably cemented its relationship with the “affluencers,” was the subject of a public, heated, and protracted legal battle between the Weinstein Co. (which produces the show), Bravo, and Lifetime, the network to which Project Runway has moved. Bravo ultimately lost. “You go through different stages of grief when you lose a child,” Cohen admits. “What’s great is that in the last year we’ve had our best ratings ever without Project Runway. We had five great seasons. Do I want to watch what Lifetime did to Project Runway? Not particularly. It’s kind of like going to the prom and watching someone who broke up with you dance with their new boyfriend.”

Cohen certainly has earned his bragging rights, and the network owes most of its victorious run in 2009 to a group of loaded, bawdy women who put the smack down as much as they do their platinum cards. The show that inaugurated the phenomenon, The Real Housewives of Orange County, completed its fourth season with its biggest viewership ever, as did season 2 of TRH New York City. TRH New Jersey became Bravo’s highest-rated first season Housewives franchise to date. The July premiere of TRH Atlanta’s second season was the most-watched premiere in the franchise, and on August 6 the second episode became the highest-rated Thursday night telecast for the network.

Some critics maintain that shows like Housewives and this summer’s series Miami Social and NYC Prep represent a shift at Bravo, from highbrow reality (Project Runway and Top Chef) to low-pedigree drivel. “It seems Bravo’s programming has become a bit more interchangeable, and there’s a real sense of betrayal from the network,” says Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Nevertheless, Thompson admits that the shows’ kitsch factor is what makes them enticing to their viewers. “That campy title Real Housewives paired with New Jersey? It almost gives me goose bumps to utter it. And it delivered.”

The camp element of these shows is exactly why gays have made Housewives weekly appointment TV. The franchise represents Bravo’s next wave in its enduring gay appeal. Every few years, a new pack of commanding, blunt, over-the-top women waltz into gay men’s homes and make them clutch their pearls, often as the women rip each other’s off (to wit, Dynasty, Designing Women, Absolutely Fabulous, and Sex and the City). In an era when reality TV reigns supreme, it was only a matter of time before the gays latched on to a batch of soapy real-life divas like Bethenny Frankel, NeNe Leakes, and Dina “Bubbies” Manzo -- actual women with actual careers with actual problems -- at least actual enough for popcorn TV.

Tags: television