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I think it’s fair to say that the Real Housewives franchise has changed television. The intensely popular shows that prove to us that anyone can be a trashy trainwreck — regardless of marriage partner, pedigree or income bracket — have become one of the most discussed and hotly debated things on television. Indeed, the shows have become a must watch for millions of people worldwide captivating real housewives and celebrities alike. Even Oprah admits to watching!

The real question is — Why? Why are we so drawn to the dysfunction, the orchestrated drama and the opportunity to observe women embarrass themselves and ruin their lives on national television? The even bigger question is: How much of this is reality at all?

The Hollywood Reporter set out to answer just those questions in an in-depth investigation into “the guiltiest pleasure on television” which is worth an estimated half-billion dollars to the NBC-Universal network. Putting together a group of ladies they refer to as the Housewives All-Stars (their version – not mine), the legendary entertainment magazine interviewed producers, insiders, Andy Cohen and the ladies themselves to figure out just why we watch and why the women participate.

“People want to watch rich girls behaving badly,” explains Linda Ong, president of brand strategy adviser Truth Consulting. “The franchise started as a real-life Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but became this cultural analysis after the economic breakdown. Every town became a sociological experiment, a very real-time reflection of what was happening to the 1 percent.”

“We wanted something very authentic and they started to film something Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque,” Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media, explains of how Real Housewives of Orange County was developed. “It required a whole revision, so we came to a point where we had to decide whether to sink more money into it or just pull the plug.” Obviously money was sunk.

Housewives was originally supposed to be a film — a real documentary — of the gated community where RHOC is filmed. Entrepreneur Scott Dunlap set out to capture the lives of rich women in the affluent suburb of LA after observing his friends while attending a dinner party in the exclusive Coto community. “Everyone was sitting around the table, the ladies blinged-out, talking about family vacations to Tuscany and all bloviating the same thing: ‘Our life is perfect,’ ” he remembers.

The film never got made, but a decade later Scott eventually turned the idea into a reality show and it became a surprise hit in its very first season. Berwick, who had just green lit the surprisingly successful Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, was in good graces with the network and they decided to take a gamble on the Housewives show with her encouragement.

After reshooting the first few episodes and an “incredibly, incredibly long edit,” the show finally went on the air. “It was an experiment,” a network insider concedes. “They weren’t envisioning this huge franchise; the network was just trying to depict a lifestyle. They didn’t put a lot of advertising or money into it at first.” Shockingly, the show took off with the difficult to reach 30-something viewers the network coveted. Viewers who were still young, hip, and influential, but who had money, education, and technical know-how.

The network immediately signed on for a second season, but decided to hire drama based veteran reality producer Doug Ross who has helmed shows such as Fear Factor and Big Brother. “Scott did a great job at identifying killer cast members,” Ross explains “but the network thought with the help of some ‘grown-ups’ this thing could really blossom.”

Bravo had been working on a show called Manhattan Moms, which was the inception for Real Housewives of New York. The series was originally supposed to be about wealthy NYC moms trying to get their children into ultra elite private schools. With RHOC bringing in ratings Manhattan Moms quickly transformed into RHONY. It was at that point that Zalanick decided to turn Housewives into a franchise. Since most of the season had already been filmed the network and it’s production company, Shed Media, decided to simply go with the footage they had.

The network didn’t even tell the cast members (then Jill Zarin, LuAnn de Lesseps, Alex McCord, and Ramona Singer) about concept change. “We went to check out the artwork on the computer and it said Real Housewives of New York City,” Jill describes. “At first we were a little disappointed, to be honest.” How Bethenny Frankel was added I don’t know, but it was her vision to use the show to promote her business that changed the format completely. Thanks B — because of you we have the Bravo Home Shopping Network!

After the first season success of RHONY, Real Housewives of Atlanta and Real Housewives of New Jersey cropped up shortly thereafter. “Bravo unwittingly had stumbled upon television’s next guilty pleasure: a vehicle that showcased the lives of a handful of spoiled, consistently imperfect women whose only real distinction was the city in which they reside — and their unerring ability to behave badly.” With the premiere of RHONJ (now arguably the most hotly contested of the franchise) Bravo was able to capture more than just the 30-something audience and gained fans across all age ranges — including men and older viewers.

And casting is at the nexus of the franchise’s success. Bravo has shown a ruthless ability to let go of stars that no longer agree with their vision — hence the firing of four members of RHONY including original cast members Jill and Alex. They also seem to have an innate ability to locate women whose propensity for drama will result in big ratings. Teresa Giudice, anyone? And to keep the perspectives fresh, Bravo regularly adds new Housewives into the mix.

The real shocker (or perhaps not so real shocker to regular viewers) is the requirement for the women to craft their own storylines. “We started meeting with producers to discuss storylines,” former Housewife Peggy Tanous reveals. “I started getting anxiety thinking about all the forced drama that does happen on occasion.”

Peggy starred in one season of RHOC which featured a season finale argument with her former close friend (and the woman who got her scouted for the show) Alexis Bellino. Peggy has cited the end of this friendship and the contrived storylines as her reason for deciding not to sign on for a season two. While that may be the case, shortly after Peggy resigned (or was let go), news surfaced of her family’s financial distress.

Doug Ross contends that the producers in no way stage scenes or fabricate drama, “The audience could sniff that a mile away, so why even bother?” Although he does admit that the women are expected to plan events expressly for filming purposes.

Shed Media’s Maureen O’Connell agrees, “Honestly, sometimes I wish they would do what I tell them. I wish I had that kind of puppeteering power. But it’s the women who ultimately drive the train.” The responsibility of keeping the drama alive is an important one because drama = popularity with fans (sometimes) = ratings = maintaining their position in the cast roster and well, their paycheck.

But are they taking it too far? Since the franchise’s inception it’s bared witness to countless financial crisis (foreclosures, bankruptcy, tax evasion, etc), the destruction of friendships, arrest, divorce, murder (Kandi Burruss‘ fiance was in a fight, resulting in his death, outside an Atlanta strip club in 2009), alcoholism, family strife and now domestic abuse and suicide. Yet — the women and the viewers keep coming back.

On the converse, the cameras have also captured the good: friendships, marriage, love, pregnancy, incredible financial gains and business opportunity. Andy thinks the network is more than conscientious of the colorful cast of characters that pay his bills and garnered him his own TV fame in the form of Watch What Happens Live. “I have a deep responsibility to the women,” Andy insists. “And I take that very seriously.”

Some disagree. It was the suicide of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast mate Taylor Armstrong‘s estranged husband Russell Armstrong this past summer that caused fans, viewers and the media to question just what the reality of filming the show entailed. Particularly after reports surfaced that Bravo and NBC may have encouraged Taylor to file for divorce from Russell to remain on the show.

Bravo and Andy had questioned whether or not to air the footage from this past season featuring Russell and there was news of re-editing to present a softer storyline. Obviously that did not happen. “We talked endlessly,” Andy acknowledges. “In the end, we decided to capture what happened as sensitively as we could.” It seems that ultimately the network has decided not to feature Russell’s death in the storyline. The season ends Jan 23rd and no mention of it has been made.

Defending his position — and the network’s — Andy reminds viewers that the women agree to participate and the producers are not responsible for the issues that arise during filming. “Look, this franchise is a documentation of a period in these people’s lives. All of these women have stories to tell and some are dealing with some really serious issues.”

Despite the bad taste such episodes have left in viewers mouths the ratings continue to grow (the season premiere episode of RHOBH was up 42% from the series first season premiere) and show no signs of slowing down. It is Bravo’s ability to bring the constant and unexpected drama — a White House crashing, a huge family blow out at a Christening — that keeps viewers unable to look away, not knowing what there is to expect next.

Additionally, it is the women themselves that keep the drama happening and their decisions to return season after season, year after year. The reason is likely money. Jill even recently admitted that she was sad to be off the show because of the paycheck it generated.

And just how much money do the women make to expose their lives to the non-stop drama? A Lot. A lot, a lot. Particularly given the opportunity to develop their own brands — which is encouraged — and have the ability and support to promote these brands on the show which reaches huge audiences. All earnings from which the network takes a percentage of.

“Combined, the Housewives have published more than a dozen books; received product deals from makeup and jewelry to sex toys and alcohol; average well over 100,000 Twitter followers (Atlanta‘s Leakes has nearly 600,000); and receive an approximate six-figure salary each season (the New York cast is drawing a $250,000 payday for season five) — not movie-star money, but steady income for people arguably of limited talent.”

The desire for that success and the monetary wealth that comes with it is sometimes all-consuming. At this particular behind the scenes shoot, Housewives All Star Pinot Singer spent the whole afternoon hawking her pinot grigio line, advertising it to anyone who would listen and scaring off her fellow Housewives. I think it’s fair to say Ramona has a one-track mind.

Ramona was brought to the attention of producers by her then friend Jill, but she wasn’t interested. “By age 39, I already had $1 million cash in the bank,” Ramona dishes, grabbing a bottle of what else? – Pinot! “I said, ‘I’m sorry, but no thank you. I don’t have time. I don’t need to be famous.’ ” She gave it a second thought after the producers convinced her it would be a good platform for her business, True Faith Jewelry. And after five years on the successful series and the development of her own Pinot, Ramona is hoping to follow in Bethenny’s footsteps and nab her own spin off. Seriously? No.

“I’m already thinking ahead,” Ramona reveals. “Initially I thought I wanted to do something like [advertising executive and TV host] Donnie Deutsch and actually visit companies looking for help. I can’t just sit on a couch.” I’m guessing that means she wants to try a Tabatha Coffey approach…

Not all the drama is caught on camera – backstage at THR’s exclusive photoshoot with the RHOBH’s Lisa Vanderpump and Kyle Richards were overheard talking. “One of the girls asked me what I think of Brandi [Glanville],” Lisa whispers loudly to Kyle, while Brandi sits alone pretending to ignore them. “And I said, ‘Who?’ ” Then the two friends burst into laughter. Yeah, Brandi doesn’t fit in – that’s obvious, but why so mean ladies? I expect more from Lisa.

Andy insists the show has no malicious intent, and after all the characters drive the storyline. And the viewers are obviously liking what they see since they return season after season. “It’s good, clean fun,” he asserts. “Its like eating a bowl of no-cal popcorn; guilt-free gossip. You can watch it, you can talk about it with your friends and, at the end of the day, you can feel better about yourself and your life.” Right… I’m not sure I agree.

Below is a video of the Housewives All Star shoots featuring NeNe Leakes, Caroline Manzo, Vicki Gunvalson, Ramona and the entire cast (plus Dana Wilkey and Andy) of RHOBH! Also below are photos from the RHOBH shoot!

THOUGHTS ON THE EXPLOSIVE INFORMATION UNCOVERED? DO YOU BELIEVE BRAVO IS SO HANDS OFF IN CREATING DRAMA?

CLICK THE CONTINUE READING BUTTON TO WATCH THE BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO!

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills With Andy Cohen.

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