Bravo and E! networks take the plunge into scripted TV programming

Two of TV's biggest reality stars are breaking into acting.

Bravo and E! network, which have established themselves as reality kingpins with franchises such as "Real Housewives" and the Kardashians between them, are taking a moment to find out what happens when they stop being real and start adding scripted programming to their lineup.

After years of sustaining themselves on the cheap-to-produce but profitable reality genre, the NBCUniversal-owned cable networks are now poised to mingle at the scripted cable party. They'll be competing with the likes of TNT, USA and AMC in a bid to widen their brand and attract more eyeballs.

But finding elbow room at the already crowded affair will be tough.

Advertisers pay higher commercial rates for successful scripted shows. That's part of the reason why original scripted programming is on the rise — particularly in the cable sector, which was inundated with roughly 200 scripted projects this year.

With cable programmers contending with widespread ratings drops, they need to find new ways to draw in returning viewers and new ones.

Dips at Bravo and E! network are relatively slight so far this year. Bravo is down nearly 4% for adults 18 to 49, the demographic most preferred by advertisers, and flat in total viewers from the same period a year earlier, according to Nielsen. E! network, meanwhile, is down 9% in the 18-to-49 demographic and nearly 7% in total viewers.

Guiding the turn for the networks, whose audiences skew female, is Frances Berwick. The British native has served as president of Bravo since 2010 and extended her oversight to Oxygen Media last year. Berwick, who has a master's degree from Edinburgh University and got her start raising funds for British stage productions, was recently put in charge of overseeing E! and Esquire Network as well amid a restructuring at NBCUniversal's cable group.

"We're going into this because we feel like it will complement the schedule and, to a certain extent, round out what we are already doing on the unscripted side," Berwick said in a telephone interview. "It was just time to do it."

Bravo was first out of the gate with last week's launch of "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce," which follows an L.A.-based self-help author (Lisa Edelstein) who struggles to navigate life after splitting from her husband.

E! network follows in March with soap drama "The Royals," which aims to seduce viewers with an inside look at a fictional modern-day monarchy in England headed by Elizabeth Hurley.

The two lifestyle networks are key moneymakers among NBCUniversal's cable group, which includes the cash cow USA Network. Bravo has taken in $380 million in net ad revenue this year, and E! network has hauled in $207 million, according to SNL Kagan estimates. Berwick acknowledged that finding success in the scripted arena would "probably add a cachet of quality" in the eyes of advertisers, who are willing to pay a premium for scripted series.

The networks have become destinations for high-charged drama by way of putting the lens on "real" people — as seen through table-flipping arguments and botched surgeries. The strategy has mostly worked in their favor.

But as scripted original programming continues to be viewed as a more appealing option, in terms of ad and licensing revenue, the decision to enter the scripted game is only logical for the two networks, said Derek Baine, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan.

"When it comes to scripted, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't," Baine said. "It's expensive to make, but can really pay off if viewers show up. Bravo and E! are in a position to have the wherewithal to go through the hit and failure cycle, and take some losses and find some gains."

Breaking through the clutter will be tough, said Stacey Lynn Schulman, executive vice president of strategy and analytics at Katz Media Group, but it's better than waiting any longer.

"At least now Bravo and E! have a pedigree of their brand established to help serve as a springboard for trying something new," Schulman said.

But expanding the scope of a network doesn't always pay off, as this year proved.

AMC, home to "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead," gave reality programming a try to middling success. In October it announced it was largely scrapping the effort to re-shift its focus on scripted originals.

And USA Network decided to scale back its efforts to get into comedy, a complement to its drama slate.

Bravo and E! network are entering the non-reality genre cautiously.

Besides "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce," Bravo's only other scripted project comedy, "Odd Mom Out," is expected to premiere next year.

The network had a brief fling with scripted fare in 2004 with "Significant Others," a sitcom heavy on improv that spanned 12 episodes over two seasons.

Bravo has sought a serious return to scripted programming since 2012.

"Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce" comes with a production price tag of about $2.5 million an episode, on par with industry standards. Tens of millions of dollars were spent heavily marketing the series ahead of its premiere. Ads ran often on the network and on NBCUniversal's other cable units. The spots also aired during high-rated shows on other networks such as ABC's "Scandal."

The turnout for t e show's Dec. 2 premiere was modest. It opened to about 1 million viewers in its 10 p.m. slot, retaining just half of its "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" lead-in. Among women 18 to 49, it clocked a 0.7 rating, compared with a 1.2 rating for "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."

The programming pivot for both networks comes as NBCUniversal has been overhauling its programming and management team. E!'s president of three years, Suzanne Kolb, exited in September, and veteran marketer Adam Stotsky was named general manager.

The network, which is mostly known as a destination for celebrity-fueled reality shows and pop culture news, has struggled to find shows that pop to the level of the Kardashian franchise. And it has had to contend with setbacks this year.

In a messy parting, Chelsea Handler left her perch as E!'s late-night host this summer. And "The Fashion Police," a steady performer, suffered a blow with the death of main host Joan Rivers (the network recently tapped Kathy Griffin to fill the spot).

E! has also been strategic in its efforts — for example, developing scripted shows from Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage ("The O.C.") and songwriter Diane Warren. At a time when the bulk of cable networks were going dark with scripted programs, E! wanted lighter fare that dealt with the heightened life of celebrities or pop culture.

"The Royals," produced by Lionsgate and outfitted with opulence and status, fit the bill.

"We know that our viewers are a little obsessed with the royal family, and this is sort of another way into something," Berwick said. "It's deliciously glamorous and soapy and fun and it's just a really great ride, which feels very much on-brand but in an area we could have never have covered in a real way on the network."

For now, it's a waiting game to see how the scripted shows fare on both networks.

"You can't go back to 200 other hours to look at how you're going to tell that story," Berwick said. "You've sort of shot what you've shot. It's just a different discipline and different process. And we'll see how it goes."

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