Start Getting Real?
Inside the Bravo Lap of Luxury: Secrets to the Network’s Glamorous Reality TV Success
As Bravo gets ready to launch its latest round of reality-TV luxury porn, we look at how the network carved its unique space depicting the lives of the rich.
You know when you’re watching a Bravo show.
You knew back in 2003 when five men with queer eyes began making over straight guys, and three years later when Top Chef took the burgeoning reality TV competition drama and brought it to the world of high-end food.
You knew when the Real Housewives franchise started to explode, turning various cities’ ladies who lunch into household names. You knew when Million Dollar Listings were consumed by viewers as if they were parts of their own apartment hunts, and when Below Deck made yachting around the Caribbean seem like your everyday weekend trip.
Now, as the third season of Below Deck receives ratings as luxurious as the trips its crew charters, Bravo is premiering its latest offering spotlighting the unattainable lifestyles of the rich and the famous, and the people who help them achieve them. It’s a sexy little show about a Canadian concierge company called Après Ski, which will, once the network’s upcoming globe-trotting epic Tour Group premieres in 2016, mark Bravo’s firm grasp on its latest takeover of the upscale, glamour space: travel.
Tables being flipped, artificial limbs being thrown, and catchphrases being doled out sassily by women in a rainbow of jewel tone dresses are what Bravo’s always been known for. Now the network is taking those trademarks around the world, moving even further into a space it uniquely owns.
At a time when the reality TV conversation is so heavily dominated by Honey Boo Boos, Duck Dynasties, Pawn Stars, and families who can’t stop counting their kids—all shows that trade on conservative morals and down-home gee-golly relatability for ratings—Bravo has turned up the dial in the opposite direction.
Those monsters we’re supposed to, as a culture, hate and shake our fists at—the 1 percent—are now our heroes. At least, they’re champagne-swilling, jet setting protagonists we’re willing to see the world with, often while cringing at their behavior, and somehow along the way sympathizing with and maybe seeing ourselves in the emotional breakthroughs they have along the way.
Reality TV was born as a way to reflect our own lives back at us. On Bravo, however, those lives are being lived in much nicer houses wearing much more expensive clothes.
“I think people have always been fascinated by people who live life well,” Shari Levine, executive vice president of current production at Bravo Media, says.
Charting TV history from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to MTV’s Cribs, from Dynasty to Empire, that’s inarguably true. But in a genre that by its very name is supposed to depict “reality,” it’s a singular feat that Bravo’s been able to lay claim to a space that fetishizes something that is not real to many of us at all: luxury.
“We really have built a lot of equity around this notion of featuring glamorous lifestyles,” Dave Kaplan, senior vice president of research and insight at Bravo and Oxygen, says. “We did a tracking study where we asked cable viewers at large what they associate with Bravo and the number one programming type that popped was the focus on the glamorous or upscale lifestyle.”
For its viewers, who track more affluent than most cable nets’, “it’s a peek into something or some place that they may not be able to attain or wouldn’t even have known existed,” he says. “I think there’s that aspirational element to it.”
Enter Après Ski. Premiering Monday night, the series follows around the employees of bars, events, and nightlife entrepreneur Joey Gibbons’s fledgling concierge company Gibbons Life. Gibbons developed the company to facilitate luxury travel experiences for the kinds of ungodly rich and insufferably demanding travelers none of us know but all wish we could be, all in the glorious snowcapped mountains of Canada’s trendy ski town Whistler, which Gibbons refers to as “Disneyland for adults.”
“I got a phone call from Bravo that basically said, ‘Hey Canada’s cool right now in the States,” Gibbons says. “We want to do a show about a cool town in a cool country.”
Fair enough. Whistler looks epically cool.
With sweeping camera shots of Whistler’s breathtaking winter scenery and slick footage of a buffet of over-the-top parties and fancy restaurants and hotels, it paints an unachievably posh portrait of a town populated with characters so decadent you’re forgiven for seething with jealousy.
Of course, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. And it’s certainly nothing you haven’t seen on Bravo.
Watch any vacation arc on a season of Real Housewives and you can picture the travel-erotica way the series is filmed. Watch Vanderpump Rules or Below Deck, two series that have its characters serving the needs of wealthy clientele—all while looking fabulous themselves—and you get the idea of the show. The familiarity is part of the Bravo viewing experience. But this one just does it… with snow.
On the Après Ski premiere, for example, the Gibbons Life staff shuttles a recent divorcee and her friends to hot springs near the top of a mountain in a helicopter to get massaged. “Their masseuses need to be hot men with no shirts feeding them chocolate strawberries,” the staff’s boss, Elise, says. When the masseuses end up being women, the clients demand one of the male concierges serve them drinks in his underwear to make up for it.
Later, while on a cocktails and hors d’ourves break during a dogsled trip (you know, typical stuff), the women are served by a waiter wearing a Chippendale’s bow tie, an apron, and nothing else. Another group of clients complains when they’re forced to walk through snow—in Whistler, Canada—in heels. One of the women is too hungover to weather a catered dinner in a ski gondola.
It’s all very obnoxious behavior. But you desperately want to be invited to the party.
So what’s the appeal? Why is watching people live out luxury experiences that so many of us will never be able to attain, and then act rather despicably while doing it, so entertaining? Because it is. It’s highly entertaining. As we’ve proven by turning this brand and formula into an undeniable and marketable phenomenon for Bravo, we can’t stop watching.
Part of it is because it’s all so beautiful.
Like Below Deck before it, Après Ski features astounding footage of the landscape it’s spotlighting. Footage of Tour Group that played for media and industry folks at a presentation earlier this year was perhaps even more stunning, all the more so for seeming to have an even deeper emotional through line pulsing beneath the far-flung, stunning destinations that are at the show’s heart.
Still, it’s a lifestyle that’s mostly unattainable and certainly unrelatable for those of us watching from our Ikea couches and pairing our viewings of their seven-course meals at five-star resorts with take-out Chinese food. Gibbons compares watching a show like Après Ski to the experience of watching something like Entourage, an escapist fantasyland none of us have a real-world access point into.
“That was sort of what I was hoping we were going to capture in this program up here, the ability to give somebody an escape into our world,” he says. “I really do believe it’s so magical up here. There is no better place to escape for adults in North America. It’s got all the fun of Vegas, but you wake up to the beauty of Maui.
“We capture this contrast that nobody else can.”
But luxury porn would be nothing without its impossibly attractive, impeccably (and often inappropriately) dressed participants, creating fireworks—sexual or otherwise—with their larger-than-life personalities and bloodthirst for petty drama. Whether it’s housewives bickering about brunch invites in the Hamptons or concierges debating each other’s wardrobes at a chalet in a Canadian ski town, it’s the trappings of a Bravo TV show.
Dramatic settings need dramatic people.
“We’ve managed to create a really good formula of the things that classically work in reality TV and then set it against this kind of escapist, upscale backdrop that allows people to be really transported into a place that in many ways they could only imagine,” Kaplan says.
In that regard, for as much as the appeal of shows like Après Ski is to live vicariously through the lucky people who are having these swanky experiences, viewers are taking pleasure in judging the way these people are acting while engaged in activities many of us would give our right arm’s to do.
“You’re watching these people deal with situations and you’re thinking that you know you’d handle it better,” Levine says. “So you can want and aspire to what they have and at the same time feel superior in thinking you would handle it better than they do.”
Watching a Bravo show, in that way, becomes an interactive game. And, for all this talk of luxury, glamour, and upscale branding, that’s when the “reality” of it all comes in.
Levine points to the “yin yang” of watching a show like Real Housewives, in which you’ll watch women in their palatial homes bicker with one another and maybe roll your eyes, but then start seeing yourself and your own girlfriends in the debates that they’re having. Everyone’s got the same shit, basically, even if you’re wearing Prada while dealing with it.
“You’re watching somebody who potentially is living a lifestyle that you can’t, that is maybe beyond your means,” she says. “But part of the pleasure of watching is you’re watching them deal with real-life situations and situations that you’d deal with in a slightly different way, in a slightly different style. So you’re able to inject yourself into what you’re seeing because there’s always a relatable way in for the viewer.”
The network has begun evolving that narrative in recent years with shows like Vanderpump Rules, Below Deck, and now Après Ski, which are showing people in a more relatable service and work environment. These people just happen to sometimes live together Real World-style in a purposeful pressure cooker of booze, sex, and personality.
Considering that, it’s almost too obvious that travel would be the next space the network would explore.
Lightbulbs started going off indicating that this was a space for the Bravo brand to naturally grow into when the notorious vacation episodes of Real Housewives franchises started yielding higher-than-average ratings for respective seasons. That was the anecdotal evidence that Bravo viewers enjoyed seeing these characters in exotic backdrops, and the heightened excitement and sense of adventure that provided.
When Kaplan looked at the data of the Bravo demographic, too, he noticed the network’s viewers, in terms of their own interests, “over-index,” as he calls it, in taking foreign vacations, being willing to pay for high-end travel accommodation, and various other travel and vacationing metrics. It was something they were passionate about pursuing in their personal lives, so it made sense to reflect that in programming.
“It’s in a bid to hopefully grow our audience as well,” Kaplan says. “Maybe there’s a possibility to get a different kind of viewer into these shows, who may not have been interested in watching an all-female ensemble like the Housewives but might be interested in watching mixed-gender casts that are doing interesting and entertaining things.”
From a pure TV standpoint, there is no pressure cooker greater than travel.
The stress rivals the excitement, which is something anyone who has traveled with other people can relate to. But the transcendence of the experience is far more profound, too. The enlightenment and self-discovery that comes from travel adds a classier and certainly more emotional element to the journeys we’re used to watching a Bravo personality go on.
That will come through in its purest form, Levine says, when Tour Group airs.
“With Tour Group, you have a group people going around the world and they have to deal with each other, they have to deal with being in a strange place, they have to deal with the reality of travel,” she says. You have the backdrop of these beautiful locales and spell-binding cultures. “But you’re also dealing with the reality of a person traveling and what that means, dealing with other people.”
And wherever Bravo is traveling, Levine is confident that its viewers will go along for its ride. The network’s evidence suggests that its viewers are unrivaled in brand loyalty and are willing to sample much of what the network offers. It’s kind of a divine situation for a network to be in, producing what is veritably a captive audience to try things out on.
It gives the network leeway to make some very calculated risks. The travel gamble, Levine says, has already paid off, pointing to the success of Below Deck.
“So traveling is the next place where we are going, and we built steps for getting there,” she says. “We’re traveling the world at this point.”
Of course, that’s become the beauty of Bravo. You can put it anywhere in the globe, and you still know. You still know it’s Bravo.