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10/27/2006 8:06 PM Eastern

If you turn on the Bravo network to watch a particular show these days, it’s pretty hard to miss it.

The channel’s latest hit is Top Chef, the competitive reality show. If you tuned in Bravo anytime between 10 a.m. last Wednesday until 4 a.m. Thursday, it was on. The lone exception: One hour, at midnight, with Joan Rivers.

As if that was not enough, on Friday you could sate your interest in knives and things that go chop in the night with The 100 Scariest Movie Moments (five hours in a row); and Even Scarier Movie Moments (two hours in a row), topped off with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and Friday the 13th back to back.

The “catch-up marathon” for food fights and the “highbrow meets gore” pop-cultural moment are not accidental — and they didn’t occur because Bravo has run out of ideas about what to put on screen to attract viewers.

Bravo Think
Bravo defines the “guardrails” of its “brand personality” as:
SOURCE: "Think Bravo," Bravo network, internal document
Inventive, but useful
Original, but not abstract
Stylish, but accessible
Bold, but not offensive
Breezy, but still meaningful
Forward-looking, but rooted in the present
Smart, but not academic
Confident, without bragging
Sexy, but not vulgar
Open-minded, but still opinionated
Inviting, but not ordinary

“We marathon things; we repeat things. It’s part of a strategy,” said Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick. “We don’t hide from it.”

Repeats of its own original programs, reruns of other networks’ series, kitschy movies and a well-chosen handful of hit reality shows: It’s a programming playbook from which broader TV networks, such as NBC, could borrow a page or two. Because Bravo draws in more viewers without producing a lot of new programming.

“That’s efficiency,” says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “Bravo does manage to really squeeze every bit of value from its stuff.”

In its drive for efficiency, Bravo also is moving the kind of niche programming that used to define what a particular cable network is about onto a newer medium that caters to narrower audiences: the Internet. Its latest: a “broadband channel,” called OutzoneTV.com, that caters to gay and lesbian interests.

It’s an efficiency — and a drive — that NBC, which bought Bravo four years ago for $1.25 billion, could now use.

Parent company NBC Universal, which owns NBC and Bravo, said 11 days ago that it plans to eliminate 5% of NBC’s worldwide work force and $750 million in operating expenses by the end of next year. Among its chosen tactics: Reduce the cost of programming in the first hour of primetime at NBC, the 8 p.m. hour each weeknight.

For that, NBC could do a lot worse than copy parts of what Bravo is doing. It’s not going to purchase programs from other networks, like Bravo does. But it can look at how it produces its own.

For instance, the Peacock Network was paying $6 million an episode for the half-hour comedy Friends by the time it ended its run.

More to the point, NBC paid between $3 million and $3.5 million for Aaron Sorkin’s hit The West Wing. Sorkin’s new drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which hasn’t generated West Wing-like ratings, costs upwards of $2.5 million an episode.

Bravo avoids that by airing scripted shows where another network, like NBC, has already sunk costs. In 2001, Bravo shelled out $1.1 million an episode to re-air West Wing. And in its latest high-profile rerun deal, Bravo is paying HBO $250,000 an episode for all five seasons of Six Feet Under, about a family that runs a mortuary.

The big hits Bravo produces itself, by contrast, are Project Runway and Top Chef. They don’t have scripts.

“Reality” shows, even by NBC standards, “only” cost about $1 million an episode.

But Bravo’s costs are well under that, in the estimate of Rod Buston, associate professor of mass communications at the University of Denver. By using non-union production crews, digital-video production technology and lots of product placements to subsidize creation of a show, he estimates that it costs Bravo only $30,000 to $40,000 to shoot and edit each hour-long reality program. Spread over multiple airings, he said, that comes down to $5,000 or $10,000 each.

It’s a formula of dimes-on-the-dollar programming that appears to pay off — if you can catch some wind to get started.

“The economic model of success was entirely the same five years ago,” said Zalaznick. “If you show ratings growth, you will have ad-sales growth.” And double-digit profit growth, her yearly goal.

So far, Zalaznick’s team repeatedly has found ways to get that growth. NBC bought the arts channel from Rainbow Media in 2002, just before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became the network’s defining hit, waking up a nation to its position on the dial.

'FAB’ HIT STREAK

Instead of symphonies, operas and ballets, Bravo had made itself over into a stew of fashion, interior design, grooming, cuisines and popular-culture programming. And it used an unexpected set of protagonists, a “Fab Five” of gay men, to make that point.

Then, despite a stumbling start, it repeated the success with Project Runway, and now it has what may be the top-rated food show on cable in Top Chef.

And eyeballs to match. In the year before Queer Eye debuted, only about 60,000 men and 70,000 women aged 25 to 54 Bravo at any given point in the evening. Now, on average, 119,000 men and 158,000 women do.

The network also is aimed at what executive vice president of programming and production Frances Berwick said are “the most affluent and most educated” viewers on television. Bravo claims to have more college-educated viewers and viewers with annual household incomes of $100,000 than any other cable network. Plus, it has buzz.

Bravo's Encores
Marathons and repeat airings are staples. In the past week, only 18 different shows appeared on Bravo.
Program Duration Total Showings Total Hours
Top Chef 1 hour 34 34
Halloween Stunt: 100 Scariest Movie Moments 1 hour 21 21
Joan Rivers: Before Melissa Pulls the Plug 1 hour 9 9
Project Runway 1 hour 8 8
Six Feet Under 1 hour 8 8
Law & Order: CI 1 hour 8 8
Last Comic Standing 1 hour 7 7
Halloween Stunt: Even Scarier Movie Moments, Part I/II 1 hour 6 6
Columbo 1.5 or 2 hour 4 7
Kathy Griffin 1 or 2 hours 4 6
West Wing 1 hour 4 4
Biggest Loser 1 hour 4 4
Inside the Actor’s Studio 1 or 2 hours 3 4
Halloween Stunt: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 hours 2 4
Halloween Stunt: Friday the 13th / Friday the 13th Pt. VII — Manhattan 2 hours 2 4
Outrageous and Contageous: Viral Videos 0.5 hours 3 1.5
Most Outrageous Moments 0.5 hours 2 1
Celebrity Poker Showdown 2 hours 1 2
*This list does not include 4-hour blocks from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., which totals 28 hours of paid programming
SOURCE: Bravotv.com; Multichannel News calculations.

“Everybody’s talking about Top Chef and Project Runway, which are really two shows that could just as easily play on the [NBC] network,” said Thompson. “I am surprised that NBC has not put them on its prime events schedule already. Heaven knows, they need stuff. It’s a natural thing to do both of those.”

But, from NBC’s viewpoint, Bravo’s approach to programming has its limits. Even at the higher plateau of the last three years, Bravo’s ratings are hardly NBC-worthy.

The lowest-rated NBC series in primetime so far this fall — Football Night in America, the highlights-laden lead-in to NBC’s Sunday-night National Football League games — is averaging 5.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Bravo’s highest-rated series is Project Runway. Average viewers: 1.1 million, season-to-date, according to Nielsen.

But Runway did pull in 3.4 million viewers on average for the 15 premiere episodes in its third season. The finale on Oct. 18? 5.4 million.

NBC Universal Cable president of entertainment and cross-platform strategy Jeff Gaspin said NBCU has tried running Project Runway on NBC. Officials found that strategy did more to feed viewers to Bravo than to draw them to NBC.

“The ratings on NBC didn’t warrant more plays,” he said. “If the ratings had been higher, I’m sure that’s something we’d look into.”

What each network needs, in terms of output, is on two entirely different scales. NBC requires 22 hours of original programming a week to fill its primetime. Berwick can go through 3,000 pitches a year, to sift out six to eight new shows that might get launched on Bravo.

Even so, Bravo under NBC is hardly recognizable from its debut 25 years ago February as the first pay TV service “devoted exclusively to the performing arts.” In 1981, the upstart challenger to PBS appeared only on Sunday and Monday evenings. Among its highlights: taped concerts of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

These days, Bravo is a basic-cable network and the arts are fashion (Project Runway), food (Top Chef), exercise (Work Out) and even real estate (Million Dollar Listing).

“It used to be that they actually did arts programming,” said Ed Bark, a television critic for the Dallas Morning News from the time Bravo was born until this year. “Now, they basically are a reality channel.”

Marketing senior vice president Jason Klarman called it “neo-arts and culture.”

“It’s arts and culture that’s relevant to people who are watching television and that works on television,” he said.

Whether it’s stuff they hope is perceived as campy fun, like Friday the 13th movies at Halloween, or an exercise in open-mindedness when it stars a lesbian gym instructor (Jackie Warner) in its approach to fitness, Zalaznick wants to find programming that — somehow — is “smart but not snobby; fun but not stupid; funny but not coarse.”

Not highbrow. Not lowbrow. But not middlebrow, either. In effect, Bravo now gets to define anything it shows as arts or culture, said Bark — as long as it plays to popular interests and creates “heat,” aka buzz.

“It’s not like kids of any generation grew up loving watching Masterpiece Theatre or some of the cultural stuff that was available. But now it is increasingly [the case that] there’s never going to be any real foundation for that,” Bark said. “I mean, people grow up thinking that Project Runway is cultural entertainment.”

THE NARROW NET

In fact, what Bravo has been demonstrating is that increasing numbers of cable networks are no longer 24-hour outlets devoted to one niche subject, whether it’s food, news or alternative lifestyles.

In the Bravo approach, the network must appeal to the widest possible audience in the chosen demographic (affluent, well-educated people, in its case).

That has meant, so far this year, that nine different Bravo programs have drawn more than 1 million viewers for at least one airing. Most of these have been reality shows, such as Work Out, Million Dollar Listing and Project Runway. But even reruns of Law & Order: Criminal Intent make the list.

And here’s where the bigger broadcasters — such as NBC — as well as cable brethren could take note. Bravo is pushing the kind of “narrowcast” content that used to be the staple of cable systems onto the Internet.

It has launched three “broadband channels” that at one point or another could have — and even did — wind up on cable. Trio, which focuses on TV as a cultural art form, moved from digital cable onto the Internet at the end of 2005.

In turn, two more broadband channels have been spun off from Trio: brilliantbutcancelled.com, which streams such flashes in the pan as The Jake Effect and EZ Streets for TV fanatics; and OutzoneTV.com, launched in conjunction with the online community PlanetOut, aimed at gay and lesbian Web users.

Bravo On a Plateau
It reaches 5 million more households than two years ago, but viewership hasn't grown noticably:
Year Universe (thousands of households) Prime Time Viewership* (thousands of adults)
2001 52,982 191
2002 64,906 214
2003 70,041 275
2004 75,416 380
2005 78,442 339
2006 80,646 392
* Quarterly hour average
SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research

With the infinite inventory of the Internet, these Web-based channels are aimed at what Zalaznick calls “compartmentalized fanatics.” Some of those viewers “will be beyond passionate” for Outzone … or forgotten TV shows that someone, somewhere once called “brilliant,” she said.

Outzone, for instance, replays a 1972 movie starring Martin Sheen (West Wing) and Hal Holbrook (of Mark Twain impersonation fame) about a divorced father trying to keep his son from discovering his lover is male. And other fare, such as the Boy Meets Boy series, that has simultaneously made Bravo a broadbased and a narrow-based entertainment operation, in some eyes.

And if the appeal to fanatics works, the results are readily apparent.

“The Web immediately tells you what’s working and what’s not,” Zalaznick said.

So far, the three channels have attracted 1 million unique visitors. But BravoTV.com is more popular, attracting 2.7 million different visitors in its most recent quarter.

Such channels get just a fraction of the viewership of TV channels. Klarman is happy that visitors to Bravotv.com spend about 22 minutes a month on the site.

“It’s a sign that there’s a business there; that there is a commitment by the user to spend time there,” he said.

Still, it’s only about the same commitment of time as is spent with a half-hour of ad-supported Bravo programming on its TV channel.

But that turning over of niche audiences to the Internet could be instructive to NBC and other broadcasters, said Syracuse’s Thompson. And much of it, like what appears on Bravotv.com, is designed to drive viewers back to the basic TV channel.

“They’ve been very clever at this,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got the other networks that are trying to ham-handedly stumble their way into the Internet and the new media. You have Bravo, which starts out as a narrowcasting niche channel, redefines itself by not giving up its narrowcasting identity but at the same time diversifying its programming and genres in much more a sort of broadcasting model, then moving the real narrowcasting where it really belongs now.”

Bravo, he said, “seemingly effortlessly made these moves that make perfect sense.’’

Mike Reynolds contributed to this report.

September