At Bravo, Not Even Coronavirus Can Stop the ‘Real Housewives’

Fans of Bravo shows are ardent and demanding, and when the coronavirus production shutdown happened in mid-March, they panicked — this is their NFL and NBA. Luckily, heading into quarantine, the network had a stocked cupboard that included seasons of some of its buzziest shows. That roster included several full seasons of “Real Housewives” (“Beverly Hills, “New York” and “Potomac”); “Top Chef: All Stars;” “Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles”; and one of the most popular shows on cable, “Below Deck Mediterranean.” A brand-new installment of “Real Housewives,” set in Salt Lake City — the franchise’s first expansion since 2016 — will premiere this fall.

When the stay-at-home orders happened in late March, Bravo quickly figured out how to edit and do post-production remotely — and even to shoot programs such as Andy Cohen’s nightly talk show, “Watch What Happens Live,” from his home, as well as filming explosive reunion episodes over Zoom for “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Shahs of Sunset” and “Vanderpump Rules.”

“There has been a seamless quality to our shows, because we were able to keep going, and able to get them all on the air,” says Shari Levine, Bravo’s executive vice president of production.

The network’s nimble pivot has brought Bravo its highest ranking ever in the key sales demographics of 18-to-49 and 25-to-54. In those demos in primetime, Bravo is No. 3 among cable entertainment networks (excluding news and sports) — behind only TLC and TBS. Among women in those age groups, Bravo is No. 2 overall (behind only TLC), including the news and sports cablers. The Denise Richards-focused drama on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has made that show the year’s top-rated cable program on Wednesday nights; “Below Deck Mediterranean” has been hitting series-high ratings, with a recent episode drawing an audience of more than 2.7 million in delayed viewing.

Those successes are from what Bravo had in the pantry. Early this summer, Bravo’s cameras began rolling again. “Southern Charm” was the first of its docusoaps to restart, in Charleston, South Carolina in June, where the show follows the tumultuous lives of Southern socialites. “Married to Medicine” is filming in Atlanta, and the high-flying real estate show “Million Dollar Listing New York” is also in production.

The “Real Housewives” franchise is filming in four regions — in “Dallas” and “Atlanta,” and in “Orange County” and “New Jersey,” both of which stopped production in March. All of those shows are documenting the casts living their lives, as usual. And they’re doing so, Levine says, under the safety protocols that have rapidly become industry standard for filming during COVID-19: smaller crews clad in personal protective equipment, with frequent testing for the casts and crew.

But “Below Deck: Sailing Yacht” and “Summer House” are filming differently from how they usually do. Levine calls them “bubble” shows, meaning that they’re “self-contained.” In both shows — “Sailing Yacht” is set in Europe, “Summer House” films in the Hamptons — guests used to be able to come and go as they pleased: but no longer. “You really have to think of the casts as a self-contained unit,” Levine says. “And nobody’s allowed into the bubble who hasn’t been tested and quarantined beforehand.”

As for nights out for the yachties on their days off, Levine says, “The only way we’re doing that is if it’s in an isolated area, or in an isolated part of a restaurant. So that we really are keeping the bubble as intact as possible.”

The bubble model, Levine says, will soon be applied to the next season of “Top Chef,” the location of which will be announced soon. All the cheftestants and judges will have to be tested and quarantined before production begins, and the set itself will be different — everyone won’t be on top of one another, like they usually are. “There will be social distancing,” Levine says. “The individual kitchens are located further apart from each other.” Nor will the judges share food anymore.

Those aren’t the only changes coming to the Emmy-winning competition. “You will not see — to our chagrin — a lot of different local chefs or guest judges who would come in just for an episode,” Levine says. Instead, guest judges, many of whom are graduates of the show, will also be tested and quarantined, and will appear in more than one episode. “It’s different,” Levine says. “It’ll look and feel different — but hopefully not that much.”

A lot of these plans were made during that time when common wisdom had formed a consensus — based on fiction, as it turned out — that coronavirus cases would wane nationwide in the summer because of warm weather, and that filming should be squeezed in before flu season hits in the fall. “We all thought it would be the best time to shoot, and that the virus would be the lowest level,” Levine says. “It didn’t work out that way.”

Now, production is starting up across North America. In New York, where coronavirus has now ebbed, the network made the decision to film the reunion for “Real Housewives of New York City” not on Zoom, but in person. The cast was tested ahead of time, of course, and it was filmed with a reduced crew at Oheka Castle on Long Island, presided over by Cohen. Gone are the couches that force the cast to interact at close range, Levine says: “Everybody has their own chair, and the chairs are located six feet apart from each other. People wear their masks, except when we are actively taping.

“It was very different from other reunions!”

Everything is unquestionably different. Shannon Beador, a star of “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” announced on Instagram in July that she and her three daughters all had coronavirus. Beador — an open book, of course, as dictated by her profession — documented her COVID journey on Instagram, and will soon be doing the same on television. Levine says Bravo has protocols when anyone tests positive, which include medical intervention, self-isolation and contact tracing.

As far as Beador’s illness goes, Levine — who in practical terms, is every cast member’s employer — is able to talk about the logistics of production surrounding the diagnosis because Beador did. “Shannon was pretty vocal about her own illness,” Levine says. “When she finally was symptom-free, and was able to test negative, she was then free to be out in public, and to be out and about. I think she FaceTimed with people when she was sick, but we were not with her.”

Since “The Real Housewives of Orange County” premiered in 2006, the franchise and Bravo’s other shows have always put the way we live on display. They’ve not only shown cast members’ joys, but their struggles as well, which have included divorce, bankruptcy, addiction — even illness and death. The casts’ problems are heightened, certainly: The “Real Housewives” audience has seen more than one cast member go to prison (Teresa and Joe Giudice from “New Jersey”, Apollo Nida of “Atlanta”). But Bravo has always documented the ups and downs of American life, and it will continue to — which now means fighting about coronavirus.

“We shoot the women in their lives,” Levine says. “And as COVID, and people’s reactions to it, are a part of that window, we cover it.”

Filming now also means chronicling the Black Lives Matter movement through “Real Housewives of Atlanta’s” Porsha Williams, who has evolved since 2012 when she first joined the show from being the muted trophy wife of a retired NFL star to a firebrand civil rights activist — twice arrested at protests. Williams’ journey will fuel the show’s plot: “We talk with her about that,” Levine says, “and we show her doing that.” 

Bravo has had its own reckoning on race in these past few months. In June, Faith Stowers, a Black former member of the “Vanderpump Rules” cast, said during an Instagram Live interview that in 2018 Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute had called the police to report her for crimes she’d had nothing to do with. Bravo quickly fired Schroeder and Doute, as well as new cast members Max Boyens and Brett Caprioni, whose past racist tweets had been uncovered after the most recent season premiered.

Speaking about that decision publicly for the first time, Levine says: “We clearly made a choice when it came to ‘Vanderpump Rules,’ and we were very vocal about that. We are mindful of what the moment is. And we all feel the same in terms of intolerance, and in terms of being part of a culture that doesn’t inflict pain on people.”

As a show, “Vanderpump Rules” may not meet this moment, especially since another of its stars, Jax Taylor, has also publicly accused Stowers of having legal problems. A reimagining of the show — which revolves around Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurants, and was already in decline — may be in order. Knowing a question about the future of “Vanderpump Rules” is coming, Levine laughs: “Lisa’s restaurants aren’t open! So that’s the first and foremost thing — you can’t have a show about a restaurant if you don’t have a restaurant.

“I don’t know, is the best answer,” Levine continues. “I’m sorry, because I know you, as well as a lot of other people, want to know that. But we haven’t figured that out yet.”

Reality television has always been about conflict and growth. Casting people who make good TV, but aren’t too far over the ineffable line between being entertaining and being awful has always been difficult — never more so than today. “What we have always believed strongly is that when someone expresses themselves in a way that is potentially uncomfortable, other people have taken issue with them,” Levine says. “And we show that.”

From season to season, casts can be in flux anyway: And Levine is working on diversifying some of Bravo’s whiter casts, though it’s hard for a franchise like “Below Deck” —  “It is a pretty white world out there when it comes to crewing yachts,” Levine laments. But do look for more women of color to be added to the “Housewives” casts that are mostly white or all white. “Yes, we are looking to increase the diversity of our shows,” Levine says. “We think it’s appropriate, and it should be done.”

That process had already begun. On “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” this season, actor Garcelle Beauvais became an immediate fan favorite, and has stirred the pot with poise. “We were remarkably successful with Garcelle,” Levine says. “And I’m thrilled, because I think she’s a fantastic addition to ‘Beverly Hills.’”

The network is used to responding practically in real time, after all. When asked in an interview before the ouster of “New York” cast member Dorinda Medley about the alarming drunkenness on this season of the show, Levine says, “Listen, we are certainly aware of the feedback. We have our own reactions to what’s happening, separate from the feedback. Sometimes they are in alignment; sometimes they’re not. It’s situation specific.

“People are very vocal about all the things that they think.”

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