Jennifer Aydin, a Real Housewives of New Jersey castmember, works the Glam Stage at BravoCon like a QVC pitchwoman. “Do you ever go to a plastic surgeon, and they put in filler and move it around?” she asks her rapt crowd, clutching a U-shaped pillow. “That’s because it moves. Sleep with one of these, and your filler, your lashes, those brows and your lovely lips will all stay intact.”
A few dozen hands shoot up, iPhones raised like auction paddles to snap the QR code projected across the towering screens. Everybody in this Las Vegas convention hall is only one tap away from buying Aydin’s miracle cushion — just a cotton travel pillow, really — at a small discount from its usual $49.99. Bravo owner NBCUniversal receives a revenue share from each purchase, the emcee offers as a disclaimer at the top of the panel, but the media giant will net a lot more than a percentage of Housewives-branded merch by the end of the three-day event.
Nearly 25,000 fans of the cable brand file through Caesars Forum over the course of the sold-out November weekend, many of them paying as much as $1,200 (a full three days of VIP access) to walk among the “Bravolebrities” they watch with religious devotion. Panels featuring 160-plus personalities from 25 Bravo series come with the price of admission. Everything else — tapings, meet-and-greets, a nightclub experience — is extra. And, like Aydin, almost everyone is selling something.
In many ways, BravoCon is the culmination of one of the most unlikely success stories in 21st century TV — a physical manifestation of the network’s ability to court loyalty, recognition and, yes, disposable income at a time when fewer and fewer TV viewers associate the shows they watch with the brands that supply them. It’s also something of a middle finger to recent detractors, who question this reality empire’s frequent celebration of bad behavior and the treatment of its stars. (More on that later.)
“It’s frankly one of the few brands on television that’s left,” says Andy Cohen, the onetime programming executive who segued to talent as host of talk show Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen. “No one says, ‘I’m going to go home and watch ABC tonight.’ But they say that about Bravo. And people know what that means.”
Of course, Bravo is not immune to cable TV’s protracted death spiral. Viewership for the linear network is down, as more and more viewers watch on their own time and on their preferred platforms. When NBCUniversal platform Peacock added next-day streaming of Bravo shows to its service in 2022, subscriptions jumped by 5 million over the next three months. Many in Hollywood are quick to credit the Bravo library as a life preserver for its parent company’s slow-to-start streamer.
“This is not a ratings-dominant network…their primetime audience in the third quarter was fewer than 400,000 viewers,” says Brad Adgate, a consultant who spent decades in media buying. “But they’ve been able to sustain something that others were only able to achieve during cable’s heyday: extend their brand. Remember the ESPN Zone restaurants or the Discovery Channel stores? Bravo is the only thing like that left.”
The traditional ratings narrative isn’t exactly bleak, either. When a particularly juicy turn of events on aging series Vanderpump Rules commanded national attention earlier this year, the May reunion special became the biggest Bravo telecast in nearly a decade. The 10th season reached 11.4 million viewers and will finish 2023 as one of the highest-rated series across cable among adults 18-49. As for the cast, a group of former bartenders and servers at Real Housewives of Beverly Hills alum Lisa Vanderpump’s Los Angeles restaurants are welcomed with a reception befitting a K-pop group. In fact, any appearance at BravoCon from talent — being spotted with a castmember from a different show, reciting a beloved line of dialogue from a decade-old episode, getting a Louboutin stuck in an escalator — is cause for hysterics. Heroes are praised, villains jeered. An incalculable number of selfies are taken. As for Cohen, his relationship with this audience is more akin to a televangelist’s than that of a late night host. “It’s a great church,” he says. “Everyone’s welcome.”
“People do feel like they’re friends with these casts,” says Frances Berwick, another former Bravo programming exec who now serves as chairman of NBCUniversal Entertainment. “Especially the ones that have been on the air for a long time. They’ve invested so much of their time that it’s just a different audience relationship.”
Such relationships aren’t rare in reality TV, but where Bravo has distinguished itself is with scale. As sister network E! enjoyed the cachet of the Kardashians and little else for over a decade and a languishing MTV kept milking The Jersey Shore to diminishing returns, new iterations of The Real Housewives appeared on Bravo like they were coming off an assembly line, somehow never reaching a saturation point. Ten versions of the series are on the current programming roster, all produced by Cohen, one of them airing exclusively on Peacock. There are spinoffs (Vanderpump Rules), other franchises (five Below Deck series) and ample crossovers among stand-alone series such as Southern Charm and Summer House. Talent pools bleed together. Various stars get into beefs on social media. Others hook up and fuel tabloid clickbait. It is both a TV schedule and an ecosystem — one far bigger than just The Real Housewives.
By 2019, NBCUniversal brass agreed that core viewers were watching enough of the lineup to attempt some kind of ticketed spectacle. That first BravoCon, comparatively smaller with a 10,000-head capacity, sold out in one minute. COVID-19 stalled the follow-up, and the fest returned to New York City in 2022 with 30,000 visitors. But with triple the attendance, the talent-to-viewer ratio was deemed off-kilter. By trimming 5,000 ticket holders and moving to Las Vegas, BravoCon organizers say they’ve hit the sweet spot.
“This audience wants escapism, and that’s Vegas,” says NBCU Entertainment and Sports chief marketing officer Jenny Storms. “They also want access. I come from the sports world, and this is the entertainment industry equivalent to sports fandom.”
Like sports, Bravo is considered a safer bet than other linear offerings for many advertisers. Nearly half of Bravo viewers live in households that take in more than $100,000 a year, per Nielsen, and consumer profiler MRI-Simmons estimates the total viewership spends an annual $1.3 trillion in the U.S. Naturally, every inch of BravoCon is sponsored — with 20 partners altogether. Attendees make friendship bracelets with State Farm spokesperson “Jake” in the presenting sponsor’s massive build-out. Lay’s serves up potato chips with samples from a forthcoming West Hollywood sandwich shop run by two Vanderpump Rules stars. Panel-goers sit in staged living rooms furnished by Wayfair, get their ears pierced by Studs and pose alongside the bedazzled canisters of Clorox wipes adorning every bathroom. Ticket sales are said to cover the cost of the sprawling event. Sponsorships are where it appears to go well into the black. (NBCUniversal declined to comment on any financials.)
Pushing product is another bonus. What Bravo fans seem to seek out most on the convention floor, aside from brushes with fame, is the merch. When the floor plan of the Bravo Bazaar, 50 stalls of Bravolebrity-owned or -affiliated products sold on site, dropped in the week leading up to the event, a popular Bravo fan account posted it with the caption, “If ‘shut up and take my money’ were a map.” There’s clothing emblazoned with catchphrases, home goods, scientifically questionable health foods and more than a few lines of alcoholic beverages. Merch sales are said to have outpaced the previous BravoCon, with much of it still available on Bravo’s ecommerce platform through the holidays.
Some of these brands are vanity projects, but some are major players. Summer House stars Kyle Cooke and Amanda Batula’s Loverboy, a line of sparkling hard teas, moved a reported $16 million in product in 2022. Not only did it have its own booth at the Bravo Bazaar, but it was also peddled at on-site bars. “The show allows me the space and platform to venture out on different entrepreneurial efforts,” says Wendy Osefo, a Real Housewives of Potomac castmember who launched candle and fragrance line Onyi Home Essentials shortly after joining the show in 2020. “You cannot deny the power of Bravo. When a new season is airing, I see the impact on sales.”
Osefo sold her candles throughout the weekend, and NBCUniversal took a percentage — as it did with all talent merch at BravoCon. On her own website and at retailers where her products are stocked, Osefo says she keeps 100 percent of the profits. What Bravo earns from its talent pool’s various side hustles has been a point of debate since Bethenny Frankel, a member of the original Real Housewives of New York ensemble, sold a spirits brand she’d plugged on the show, Skinnygirl Cocktails, to Beam Global in 2011 for an estimated $100 million. Bravo didn’t see a penny. In the deal’s wake, many reality talent contracts were said to have introduced a “Bethenny Clause” to protect platforms from getting screwed out of such spoils — a narrative heavily pushed by Frankel over the years — but in reality those contracts still differ wildly.
Frankel’s history of well-earned boasting recently turned into accusations of exploitation against the network. Despite having been on seemingly good terms with Bravo just a year ago, appearing on Watch What Happens Live in December 2022 and engaging the network on potential TV projects as recently as early 2023, she has since campaigned for what she’s calling a “reality reckoning.” When SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA in striking against Hollywood studios, Frankel accused the network of taking advantage of its Bravolebrities and called on the reality talent to unionize. In August, she began directing the aggrieved to power attorneys Bryan Freedman and Mark Geragos, though thus far no client names have been released. The conflict reached a boiling point on BravoCon eve, when Frankel and two other former Real Housewives of New York stars, Leah McSweeney and Eboni K. Williams, spoke for a Vanity Fair piece claiming that castmembers were pressured to drink alcohol while filming and, more damningly, called out a co-star’s allegedly racist comments and behavior. The woman in question, Ramona Singer, has denied using any racial slurs but was scrubbed from the BravoCon lineup within 24 hours of the story dropping.
“We’ve never mistreated anyone,” Berwick says of her talent pool, before clarifying the intent of an August memo to show producers that detailed new protocols including alcohol-related training for casts and crews. “These are ultimately small tweaks on what we were doing before, a restating of protocols. In some cases, we’re going to look more closely because we feel like this is a moment that certain shows should have more specific guidelines.”
Canvassing the denizens of BravoCon, evidence of any reckoning is not so easy to find. Several who say they’ve followed the accusations call them “sad” — and one noted she’s “not sure what it would take for [her] to stop watching The Real Housewives.” Participating talent, unsurprisingly, toed the company line — some more colorfully than others.
“I’m so tired of listening to the negativity from people who’ve made a living off these shows,” says Vanderpump, whose two Las Vegas eateries would be standing-room only for the duration of the weekend — including one private party at Vanderpump à Paris for NBCUniversal ad buyers. “And this talk about encouraging drinking? If you want to drink, you do. In almost 500 episodes, you’ve never seen me rolling around drunk on the floor.”
Vanderpump perhaps excluded, Bravo has inarguably built a following for spotlighting messy behavior. Even a feel-good fan weekend isn’t immune. During the last official panel of BravoCon, a woman in the audience used the Q&A portion to ask Aydin, the pillow-pitching housewife from New Jersey, if she thought she could “crawl any further up [her co-star] Teresa Giudice’s ass.” Aydin responded by repeatedly calling the woman “big boy.” The exchange prompted accusations of misgendering and body-shaming on social media. But in the hall stuffed with Bravo devotees, it landed. When Giudice, of the table flip that launched a thousand memes, rose to her stilettoed feet to defend Aydin, the women were greeted with whoops of approval.
“We built something that people feel really strongly about,” offers Cohen, who cites the weekend’s talent attendance as evidence against any potential reckoning. “They’re paid to be here, and they get to sell whatever they want. This experience should be a win for everybody.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.