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Sitting in his 46th-floor office at 30 Rock, Andy Cohen—producer, reality TV auteur, camp icon—is previewing his latest creation, the fourth season of The Real Housewives of New York City. "The reactions are off!" Cohen complains over the phone to one of his producers. The series, which follows a gaggle of nouveau riche damsels as they bicker, go shopping, and talk about their ultrafabulous lives, has become a ratings sensation for Bravo. And though the new season is scheduled to debut in weeks, Cohen knows more work is needed. "It's very ... talky," he complains of one protracted party scene. After hearing a catty barb unleashed moments later by one character, Cohen homes in on the problem: Cast member and countess-by-marriage Luann de Lesseps, he says, "has to be more offended!" Cohen swiftly orders a close-up of her horrified visage and—crisis averted—moves to the next scene.
As Bravo executive vice-president, Cohen has made his Manhattan office a mini-shrine to his burgeoning reality fiefdom. Scattered throughout are framed posters, pictures, and tchotchkes immortalizing a number of his greatest hits—including The Real Housewives of Orange County, Top Chef, and Flipping Out. Outside his door is a picture of Cohen interviewing Jerry Seinfeld on his talk show, Watch What Happens Live, which averages 1.6 million viewers and regularly beats Conan. Among the cubicles is a faux Warhol painting of The Real Housewives of Atlanta cast. In February, the last episode of the reality show's third season attracted 4.4 million viewers—over a million more than the most recent Mad Men finale. This month the New York branch returns.
Almost pathologically uninhibited, the openly gay Cohen, 42, is a natural reality TV impresario. As a kid in St. Louis, he fell in love with All My Children and Charlie's Angels. After graduating from Boston University, he moved to New York and spent the first 10 years of his career as a producer for CBS News before a stint at the now-defunct cable channel Trio. In 2005, Cohen landed a producer's job at Bravo just as the network was transforming itself from the province of arts programming and West Wing reruns to an original content hub. Spurred by niche hits such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo was making a foray into reality plots that transcended half-naked people trapped on desert islands. Under Lauren Zalaznick, now NBC Universal's chair of Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media, the network pursued shows that would appeal to what it called "affluencers," a term Cohen helped define as upscale women with time—and a lot of disposable income—on their hands.
Starting in 2005, he oversaw reality fare curated specifically for the botoxerati. During his first year, his predecessor, Frances Berwick, was pitched a scripted Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedy focusing on wealthy Orange County women. Instead, Berwick and Cohen recast the idea as a reality show, and in 2006, Bravo launched The Real Housewives of Orange County. The franchise, now in its sixth season, has spawned spinoffs in Miami, New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Beverly Hills, and Atlanta. "Housewives is a reality Peyton Place," explains Cohen, noting that, just like in the Lana Turner movie, "the women are hot moms with big boobs who have problems communicating with their teenage kids."
The trophy wife mind-trick is working. In addition to branded books and clothing, the network is delving into other nouveau riche enclaves. It's licensed the format for The Real Housewives of Athens and is working on deals for similar shows in Canada, India, Israel, and Turkey. This year Bravo will generate $300.6 million in cash flow for parent company NBC Universal, up from $109.9 million in 2005, according to SNL Kagan cable analyst Derek Baine. In the six years since Cohen joined the network, ratings among 18- to 49-year old women have doubled. Last year, the network claims, it added 150 new advertisers, plus 50 online. "He has a great sense of what people want to see," says Jeff Lewis, who remodels houses and terrorizes his assistants on Bravo's real estate show Flipping Out. Cohen decided to cast Lewis as the show's lead character even though he had a supporting role in the pilot. The series, which recently wrapped its fourth season, is also launching a spinoff, Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis.
To boost ratings and increase exposure for its programs, Bravo gave Cohen his own twice-per-week talk show in 2009. Watch What Happens Live is essentially a forum that allows Cohen to be himself as he gossips with cast members and fans—often while nursing a drink. "Some people need a vacation or more money," says Zalaznick. "Andy needs to perform." The performances can get cringeworthy, too. On one recent episode, Cohen held a belated farewell party for a Housewives character's breast implants after she had them replaced. "We're always wondering if he's going to go too far, and sometimes he comes close," says Berwick, now Bravo president. "But it's hard to argue with his success."
Yet Cohen's success—whether as a host or producer—is rooted in his ability to go too far. This year he will oversee 346 hours, or five full nights, of original programming—a leap from 2008, when Bravo scheduled only three nights. It might not be possible if the person producing the shows didn't happen to be their biggest fan. "Every woman needs a gay best friend to hang out with," says Cohen. "I play that role."