Meet the woman behind Bravo Media

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Back in mid-July, on one of those blithely sunny, long-gone summer days, Lauren Zalaznick, an executive at NBC Universal, met with two of her subordinates for a status report on Bravo Media, the network she took over in 2004 and turned into one of cable’s most remarkable success stories. Many of the development projects discussed that day in her office, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, captured the glossy, upscale, insider sensibility that has come to characterize Bravo under Zalaznick’s watch. She heard updates on an untitled project about polo players, a reality show about high-end detox centers and another about “Filths” — an acronym for Fathers I’d Like to Have (or, as Zalaznick explained, “Very wealthy dads”).

The conversation eventually turned to “Top Chef,” a cooking competition that is one of Bravo’s most popular shows. For its fifth season (which begins Nov. 12), the show would be set in New York City. One contestant being considered, it turned out, had a seafood allergy. “That’s funny,” Zalaznick said, giving a purely professional assessment. “Let him do a seafood challenge.”

Andy Cohen, the head of original programming and development at Bravo, floated a proposal for “Top Chef” that would involve, early on in the new season, a surprise challenge and the swift elimination of a contestant. Zalaznick and company wouldn’t allow me to give away what is known in the genre as “the reveal” — the unexpected dramatic twist — but suffice it to say, the challenge was an otherwise mundane cooking task that, when performed under pressure, would thoroughly unnerve the chefs. “I really like it,” Zalaznick said. For her, the idea neatly captured the ruthless way in which the big city can chew up and spit out even the best provincial talents: “It’s like, you’ve really arrived in New York — it’s where you fight for your terrible pot-washing job after you’ve been executive chef back in wherever, and then you get fired for washing your pot wrong.”

“You don’t think it’s a little gratuitous?” asked Frances Berwick, the general manager for Bravo.

“Guess what?” Zalaznick said. “It’s the toughest city in the country.” She and Cohen tossed around a few ways they could ramp up the drama even more. Berwick laughed and shook her head. “That’s terrible.”

Terrible if you’re living it, great if you’re watching it — that is one of the basic formulas for reality TV, a genre that has been wildly popular for years, if never exactly hip. Zalaznick’s innovation has been to take this form of mass entertainment and make it boutique and chic, aiming for a small but young and affluent audience, the kind that advertisers covet.

Since she arrived at Bravo four years ago, Zalaznick has been polishing the genre of reality TV to a high sheen, taking its contestants off primitive islands and placing them squarely in sophisticated corners of cities like New York and Los Angeles. Instead of eating insects, navigating obstacle courses or flaunting their physical charms to woo lonely rich guys, the contestants on Bravo compete, with just as much zeal, to show their good taste and talent in high-status fields like food, fashion and design.

The formula may be lowbrow — attractive people pitted against one another, ruthless eliminations — but the content is, if not exactly highbrow, then certainly high-style. It’s voyeurism for the voyeur with a good eye.

Not all of Bravo’s original programming revolves around competition, but the shows all start with reality, at least the reality of competitive, urban, coastal professionals — the gymgoers, the restaurant patrons, the trendy shoppers, the interior decorators. An entire subset of Bravo programming has been devoted to the world of high-end hair salons: “Blow Out” followed the hairstylist Jonathan Antin as he strove to expand his merchandising empire; “Shear Genius” engages hairstylists in heated competition; “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover” features tough-love makeovers for mismanaged businesses.

Read the full story from the New York Times.

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