Inside BravoCon: NBCU Boss Frances Berwick on Big Ratings Gains, Bethenny Frankel and Having Enough ‘Housewives’

A decade ago, when TV upfronts were all-out affairs where networks would court advertisers with lavish parties, then-Bravo president Frances Berwick noticed something unusual about the sponsors’ behavior. They “would go absolutely nuts” for the reality stars employed by the NBCUniversal cable channel.

“They all wanted pictures, and it was this huge experience,” says Berwick, now chairman of NBCUniversal Entertainment. Witnessing that frenzy sparked an idea: What if there were a Comic-Con-like convention that brought together Bravo stars — from the women of “The Real Housewives” to “Below Deck” yachties — with their ardent fans? But “we weren’t absolutely sure that we could sell tickets,” she says wryly.

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Four years later, on the final day of BravoCon at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas, Berwick smiles at the thought. After all, she is surrounded by nearly 25,000 Bravoholics (to use the proper term of art), who’ve paid up to $1,200 (plus other costly add-ons) to engage with their idols for the weekend.

BRAVOCON -- “BravoCon 2023” -- Pictured: (l-r) Kenya Moore, Lala Kent, Candiace Dillard Bassett, Sutton Stracke, Margaret Josephs at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas, NV on Saturday, November 4, 2023 -- (Photo by: David Becker/Bravo)
Left to right: Kenya Moore, Lala Kent, Candiace Dillard Bassett, Sutton Stracke, Margaret Josephs at BravoCon.

Pop culture has become increasingly fragmented. But the network has defied that trend by harnessing an audience that has made its Bravo fandom a crucial part of its identity. Berwick says that at the first “small-scale” BravoCon in New York in 2019, tickets sold out “in under a minute.” Attendees sported tattoos of the Bravo logo, Berwick says, and she recalls hearing fans say, “This was the best weekend of my life!” At one event, Bravolebrities “were being mobbed like they were a boy band,” Berwick remembers.

Today, BravoCon is looking very much like a legitimate revenue stream for a linear cable network attempting to thrive in an age of streaming chaos. “We initially did this as a marketing endeavor, but we’re trying to run it as a business,” says Berwick. Last weekend’s convention floor was a sea of brand sponsors and talent merchandise. State Farm hosted daily panels that had fans packing the risers. Maps highlighted the locations of breakout rooms hosted by Lay’s and Wendy’s. Andy Cohen — the executive producer of the “Real Housewives” franchise, the host of nightly talk show “Watch What Happens Live” and the face of the network — said on multiple occasions that those traveling to BravoCon alone would soon find their tribe.

The show of force was proof that as cord cutting spreads and cable television dies, Bravo has adapted. Shows premiere on the linear channel first, then head to sister streamer Peacock the next day. The result of this strategy, Berwick says, is that roughly 90% of the network’s series are up in total viewers compared with 2022 — the year the programming initiative was implemented. “There’s a really different audience that are watching on Peacock: cord-cutters, somewhat- to very-younger,” Berwick says. Among the offerings these viewers are flocking to is smash hit “Vanderpump Rules,” an Emmy nominee in its 10th season, and the No. 1 entertainment cable series among women 18-49 this year.

Some chaos at last year’s BravoCon at New York City’s Javits Center led to the move to Las Vegas. Organizers weren’t sure whether people would make the trek — but tickets still sold out immediately. Pricing causes dilemmas, Berwick says, “because we don’t want to disenfranchise people — but we don’t want to undersell it.” The ardor for BravoCon has opened the door for more, though, and Berwick and her team aim to expand the experience to other markets through local events, such as tapings of Cohen’s talk show and screenings with talent.

For now, Berwick is pleased with the massive effort they put on in Vegas, but it didn’t come cheap. Bravo foots “every bill” for talent, she says, including flights, hotels, styling and car services. Indeed, Bravo may be single-handedly keeping the hair and makeup industry afloat during the painful SAG-AFTRA strike, which has shuttered red carpets and public appearances by actors.

Breaking into a smile again, Berwick adds, “Let’s just say the glam bills are going to be a lot higher than at Comic-Con.”

At any given time, there are usually three different seasons of “Real Housewives” running — believe me, we’re not complaining — a “Below Deck” and other spinoffs. Do you worry at all about tiring out those audiences?

Yeah — we’re sort of recalibrating. At one point we had five “Below Decks,” but that’s probably too much. So, we’re rotating those casts, creating a bit more distance between them.

I can’t tell you how many panels I’ve sat in on this weekend and people have said, “When are you going to do The Real Housewives of [Insert City]”? We do little bits of casting from time to time, but I feel like we’ve got plenty of “Housewives.” I’m much more focused on finding new casts. That’s what the development team is doing. We love the “Southern Hospitality” cast, and diversifying beyond that.

A lot of people who don’t watch Bravo think it’s all “Real Housewives” — and no. There’s lot of other shows, they just get a little less attention. “Winter House” is the most fun show that’s airing right now, and that’s just almost an incidental mix of different people from different shows.

BRAVOCON -- “It’s All About to Go South! Presented by State Farm" Panel from Caesars Forum in Las Vegas, NV on Sunday, November 5, 2023 -- Pictured: Shep Rose, Craig Conover --  (Photo by Nicole Weingart/Bravo)
Austen Kroll and Craig Conover from “Southern Charm.”

What is the volume, or mandate, for entirely new programming at Bravo right now? 

I would say we need to slightly readjust, and be developing and launching more. But some of this is what we’ve been dealing with in the environment overall: There was this huge explosion of content across the board, scripted or unscripted. And it was really hard for anyone to launch new shows, and it takes much more patience. As an industry, we need to have a bit more patience.

One of my personal favorites, and you’ll see some of the cast here, is “Family Karma.” We did three seasons of that; it’s currently on pause. In my heart of hearts, I believe we will bring that back at some point. You have to have patience. That show was so multi-generational — those people just were completely authentic. They grew up together. That’s the reason we wanted some of the cast here: We wanted that to feel that connection and keep the relationships. It wasn’t a big enough show, and we didn’t have the right lead-ins. We’ve proven we can bring shows back, like “The Real Housewives of Miami.”

Andy Cohen is such a singular figure at Bravo. I can’t think of another person who is the face of a network in the way that he is. Watching him perform the past two nights, he really galvanizes everything, and people are screaming, “I love you, Andy!” from their seats. I’m sure he’s very happy in his job, but surely he can’t do this forever, right?

Andy is a very sort of specific and exceptional talent, and he really is the face of the network. But I’m also happy to say that, and I think we’ve proved this over and over again, we’ve got 160 talent here who are also big faces of the network. And we’ve also been able to replace them. And one of the things about “Housewives” that has made it successful is no one talent is the whole show.

But Andy is always obviously a big piece of the equation.

BRAVOCON -- “BravoCon Live with Andy Cohen! Dynamic Duos from Paris Theater in Las Vegas, NV on Saturday, November 4, 2023” -- Pictured: (l-r) Kyle Richards, Andy Cohen -- (Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo)
Kyle Richards and Andy Cohen

Does Andy have both a talent deal and a development deal?

We obviously have a talent and production deal with “Watch What Happens Live.” And then he is an executive producer of all the “Real Housewives,” along with our production companies.

People often get confused — he doesn’t executive produce “Vanderpump Rules,” and these other shows. He gets either sort of blamed or commended in a way that is disproportionate, and he will correct the record constantly. He does not get involved, but he hosts the reunions for those shows, and so obviously, he has to have a lot of intel.

What do you think generally about the so-called “reality reckoning,” as former Bravo star Bethenny Frankel has termed it?

I think that we have had a mutually beneficial relationship with Bethenny*. We have stayed in touch, including when she pitched us three shows, and the three shows were all around our Bravo IP.

There was one about a “Real Housewives” camp that she wanted to run for “Real Housewives” kids. There was one that was around her podcast that is called “Rewives,” because it’s about “Housewives.” We found that to be too similar to another show that we have on the network — one on every night! And the other one was a spinoff of a cast she wanted to recommend for the “Housewives” in another town.

Yes — I’m just generally disappointed. I mean, we care very much about our talent. We think we have really good relationships. We care about the talent who are currently on our network, the talent who were previously on the network. We want them all to prosper. We want them all to feel good about the process. We’re incredibly empathetic when they sometimes make mistakes, that then they get repercussions from. Sometimes we don’t agree with what they’ve done. But we can be empathetic.

They go on the shows, and they know that they’re going to be judged on social. We give them a lot of guidance: “Please don’t take to heart, and pay attention, to social.” But that’s sort of a bit of human nature. Social is anonymous, and can be very punishing, I think that that’s part of the equation that we try and really lean into, and steer them. I think it’s sort of safe to say it’s just generally disappointing.

*Variety reached Frankel for comment on Berwick’s remarks. “Me pitching shows to Bravo months before opening my eyes isn’t the smoking gun they think they have…and if that’s their biggest argument against the reality reckoning, they better get back to the drawing board,” she said. Read more after the Q&A.

Was there anything that turned up in the recent Vanity Fair story that gave you pause? There were individual company policies that seemed to be evolving after the Bethenny criticism began, and as that story was coming, as Vanity Fair noted.

I think that’s actually a little inaccurate. We constantly look at the ways that we’re doing things. We had already been working on a revised look at how we control and how we monitor alcohol consumption on our shows. And each show is different. There are sort of maximum amounts — that does not work for every show that we have, because people are living their own lives, and they’re in their own homes, and they’re holding parties in their summer rentals, or whatever it is.

But we were already working on a plan to monitor that, and have people on the production be much more closely focused. Partly because we care about the people — but it also doesn’t make good TV. Nobody wants to see that. Maybe we accelerated the rollout of it, as a result.

So no, I don’t think that there was anything there that gave me pause. I think more than anything, there was a lot of recapping of things that we’ve actually shown in the shows. I think that we are incredibly mindful about the alcohol. We have a number of cast members who are sober — we’re super conscious of that, and totally support that.

If reality stars did unionize — or if they became a part of SAG-AFTRA — what would that do to Bravo’s business? 

We pay them currently on a buyout basis, obviously, so there’s going to be a recalibration. We’re taking more of the risk, up front, so there would be a whole recalibration on the fees.

We think that we pay people well. Obviously, they get paid better the longer the relationship. There’s not an infinite amount of money, and the monetization on the traditional side is going down. That gap now has been somewhat replaced by the future life that you can get from streaming. But it’s not elastic.

I don’t think that any of the conditions would be improved, because I think — and actually pretty much know — that the conditions that we aim for on all our sets are absolutely in line, if not beyond, what they could expect if they were unionized. So if we’re just talking about residuals, I think it would be a recalibration. And we’d have to look at how we let them launch businesses.

Who are you starstruck by in the Bravo cinematic universe? 

I will tell you, and I’ve met lots of them, that I still I can’t believe how tall most of these people are. I know they’re wearing heels, but it’s like huge-looking people it’s incredible. I don’t think I want to name anyone. I will say they are so attractive.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

In addition to Bethenny Frankel’s statement, she noted she has not personally retained any legal representatives nor pursued legal action against Bravo in her push to unionize reality stars, only “opened a door” for conversations about union protections.

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