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Bravo Boss Berwick Tunes Up for Upfront

Mar 1, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Frances Berwick, general manager of Bravo, met early one morning last month with senior members of her research and marketing team to find compelling arguments the network can employ in its upfront presentations to advertisers.
Various studies show that Bravo’s audience is growing increasingly upscale, educated, trendy and engaged—all traits that normally translate into advertising dollars.
But these may not be normal times as Bravo’s upscale approach to programming meets an economic downturn.
“Advertisers are looking for the smart buy and making sure they get the maximum value, and what we need to do is really demonstrate that’s what we have,” Ms. Berwick told TelevisionWeek. “I think the toughest thing is we know we have value. It’s how do we get the appropriate amount of value out of this marketplace.”
Recent trends indicate that Bravo is indeed generating value for NBC Universal and its parent, General Electric.
During GE’s fourth-quarter earnings announcement last month, the company called its cable networks business a bright spot, with Bravo generating a double-digit increase in operating income.
Ms. Berwick said despite the recession cutting into advertising spending, Bravo’s first-quarter ad sales so far are pacing 20% ahead of last year.
Behind the success is a programming strategy that has taken Bravo from a small niche channel with a few unscripted shows that generated buzz to a network breaking into cable’s top 20 among adults 18-49.
“All our momentum is really driven by the originals,” Ms. Berwick said, noting Bravo’s schedule now consists of about 75% programming created for the network.
At its upfront presentation next month, Bravo will talk about increasing its original hours by 10%. It plans to show off about five of the programs it has in development.
The network has picked up “Double Exposure,” which looks at the world of fashion and celebrity through a photographer who still works with his ex-girlfriend, a former model who now works as a booker and set designer.
“They’re totally charismatic,” Ms. Berwick said. “There’s a lot of artistic tension, so to speak, between them.”
Ms. Berwick joined Bravo as a programmer in 1996, when the network was being transformed from a commercial-free premium arts channel to an ad-supported network.
“She was really the architect of developing more accessible programming that would play on basic cable but still have appeal to an upscale audience,” said Ed Carroll, Rainbow Entertainment chief operating officer, who was Bravo’s GM before its acquisition by NBC. “The two shows she developed that moved us forward rather quickly are ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ and ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’”
Mr. Carroll is not surprised Bravo has done so well under Ms. Berwick.
“I think she’s a top-notch programmer,” he said. “She has great program instincts, a great way of dealing with the creative community, and she can be firm but in a way in which she’s viewed as being supportive.
“She’s tremendous at taking a treatment or a rough cut of a program and converting it into something that makes sense on the channel. I think Bravo generally has carved out a niche as having a successful formula for reality that they execute very well,” he said.
Lauren Zalaznick, who was put in charge of Bravo when NBC acquired Universal’s cable networks, immediately knew Ms. Berwick was a key to the network’s success. Ms. Zalaznick, still Ms. Berwick’s boss as president, NBC Universal Women & Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, praised her ability to manage her way through being a part of NBC and then NBC Universal in quick succession.
“It takes an extraordinary person to be flexible and fungible enough to go with the flow,” Ms. Zalaznick said. “She is extremely opinionated, she has excellent decision-making skills, but she’s flexible enough to recognize opportunity in any business situation.”
The executives have found a secret to co-existing, Ms. Zalaznick said.
“Everybody thinks that Frances is really, really, really nice, but she’s actually the firmest and most business-focused decision maker there is,” she said. “And everyone thinks I’m really, really, really firmly planted with decisions and opinions, but I’m actually really soft. So together we present a perfect vision to the outside world and yet get a lot done.”
Ms. Zalaznick named Ms. Berwick general manager last year, soon after NBC acquired Oxygen. Several senior Bravo staffers moved over to become the top executives at Oxygen.
Ms. Berwick filled the open slots by promoting from within.
“We have a lot of people who are in new roles, including at senior levels right across the company,” she said.
“A lot of people were given the opportunity to grow.”
Another challenge arose when producer Harvey Weinstein decided to move Bravo’s signature series, “Project Runway,” to Lifetime. NBC Universal sued Weinstein, leaving the show is in limbo.
Despite losing “Runway,” Bravo has maintained its ratings momentum, posting record viewership in February. And even though the network had a high-rated “Runway” finale ran last January, its ratings are up 2% so far in the first quarter this year.
“We have such a diverse slate and they’re all doing great,” she said, pointing to 19 shows that deliver 1 million-plus viewers each and five that deliver 3 million viewers. That lineup includes nearly DVR-proof water-cooler shows such as “Top Chef,” which just completed its highest-rated season ever, averaging 3.02 million total viewers, up 19% from the previous season.
“We didn’t get there by accident,” Ms. Berwick said. “We’re on the obsessive side about research.”
Still, there are some who wonder whether Bravo’s fascination with the rich and talented will continue to strike a chord with viewers increasingly worrying about their jobs.
“I think a lot of it is fantasy, and the question is as things get more somber—because it’s supposedly going to get worse before it gets better—how are consumers going to react to programming about the glamour and the glitz that is just so ridiculously out of reach?” said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP/director of programming at media buyer Carat.
Ms. Berwick is convinced Bravo’s audience will keep tuning in, “because they’re educated whether there’s a recession or not.”
Still, she is keeping a close eye on feedback from viewers, checking for elements of programming or marketing that need to be tweaked.
“You can’t turn away from the programming philosophy, which is that Bravo caters to the most affluent and most educated and most engaged audience,” Ms. Zalaznick said. “It’s not because it’s about how to make money, how to spend money, how to shop—it’s extremely compelling and entertaining stories about people.”

10 Comments

  1. Nice to read an article where execs, who happen to be female, so ably complement and compliment each other’s skills. There’s room out there, in any economy, for Bravo’s particular appeal. Continued good luck to them!

  2. I wish this wasn’t such a one-sided vanity piece.
    Why not interview people who think Frances Berwick and Lauren Zalaznick suck donkey penis?
    I think that Bravo is a desperate network just throwing shit at the wall and hoping something sticks. I think that the higher ups at Bravo would like to think that they are intelligent and that they cater to an intelligent audience. That couldn’t be any further from the truth.
    Let’s have an objective story about these executives and people like them in the future.
    Thanks.

  3. Never give up on your core brand. If Bravo is dead set on being an upscale-targeted network, even the current economic situation should not stop them. When the dust settles, the branding execs who stick to their guns will be left standing.
    On a more personal note, I’m really excited about “Double Exposure”. Markus Klinko and Indrani are showstoppers. I know their work intimately. It is probably the most creative and exciting celebrity work around today. I know that between their drive, art and personalities, “Double Exposure” will be a success. Great move for Bravo.
    Seth Greenberg
    Director of Marketing
    Leaf Photography

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