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LOWDOWN ON THE UPFRONT: Bravo Turns Jersey Girls into ‘Housewives’

New York—After doing docudramas on the privileged and pampered “housewives” of Orange County and New York City, Bravo is going to the land of Tony Soprano and big hair, New Jersey, for the next iteration of its reality series, officials said Tuesday.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey is one of three new series that Bravo unveiled at its upfront breakfast presentation for the press, where a network official also briefly addressed the defection of the hit Project Runway to Lifetime Television this fall.

Bravo, which is increasing its original programming hours by 45%, announced that it had renewed 12 current shows, not only Project Runway but also series such as The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of New York City, The Millionaire Matchmaker, Shear Genius, Top Chef, Top Design, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, Flipping Out and Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List.

Bravo is also adding a fourth night of original programming, Mondays.

At the gathering Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo Media and Oxygen Media, immediately referenced last week’s surprising news that Project Runway was going to Lifetime. Bravo and its parent, NBC Universal, are suing The Weinstein Co. which produces the reality show, over the switch.

“I’ll say it straight out: Regarding last week’s news, as you can well imagine, I have not much to say,” Zalaznick told the assembled reporters. “It’s ongoing litigation, and the ‘no comment’ starts here and ends here, and that’s what I have to say.”

However, Zalaznick then went on to briefly allude to comments that Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Co., made at Lifetime’s upfront yesterday.

Weinstein told reporters that NBCU president Jeff Zucker was one of his best friends, and joked that he expected to resurrect that relationship through “servitude” to Zucker, like babysitting for his kids and doing other chores.

So Zalaznick quipped Tuesday, “Harvey was going to come (to Bravo’s upfront), but as he was quoted yesterday, Jeff has four kids, so it takes a long time to drop them at school, and then he has all those windows and cleaning to do, so he may not be able to make it.”

Bravo will air the fifth season of Project Runway in July, and Lifetime is set to air the sixth season of the show in November as part of a five-year deal valued at $150 million.

Bravo officials Tuesday stressed that the network still has a number of successful shows. In the first quarter alone, Bravo saw a 38% increase in adults 18 to 49 and a 30% gain in total viewers versus the year-ago period.

“So clearly, this is not just about one show,” Zalaznick said. “It’s a powerful multimedia environment. Bravo is about an environment.”

Frances Berwick, Bravo Media’s executive vice president and general manager, also spoke at the upfront.

“Two years ago we had one show, one original night,” she said. “In 2008, we have 21 original series, and that includes 12 returning hit franchises. So that’s 12 shows with more than a million viewers, and three shows with more than 2 million viewers.”

As for Project Runway, Berwick said, “We are currently in pre-production and casting, as you may have read, and development of the all-important challenges are in full swing right now.”

Bravo did its event at the Manhattan restaurant Craft, which is owned by chef Tom Colicchio, the head judge for Top Chef. Colicchio was at the presentation.

Bravo’s new shows and specials, in addition to The Real Housewives of New Jersey, are: The Rachel Zoe Project, a docu-drama on the celebrity stylist; Date My Ex, a reality dating series feature Real Housewives of Orange County alums Jo De La Rosa and Slade Smiley; and Bravo’s A-List Awards, a special that will premiere June 12 and be hosted by Griffin.

Regarding Housewives of New Jersey, Berwick said, “This time we’re turning our eye to a wealthy community in New Jersey. We’re not saying exactly where yet, because we’re in production. We fall in love with a group of women who juggle onyx fireplaces and Faberge eggs with unfaithful husbands and family businesses.”

Bravo’s shows in development include: Donatella, about a Manhattan restaurateur; Miami Social, which follows a rich and hedonistic group of friends; and Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, where former Shear Genius contestant Tabatha Coffey tries to make over beauty salons in one week’s time.

“We’re all about consistently super serving our passionate—and I would say sometimes fanatical—viewers with content around our food, fashion, beauty, design and pop-culture affinity groups,” Berwick said.

Susan Malfa, senior vice president of ad sales for Bravo and Oxygen, told reporters that Bravo has had a banner year in terms of ad sales.

“In 2007, we saw 30% more revenue; 110 new advertisers; the highest unit rates ever; 60% more revenue this first quarter versus the prior first quarter; digital revenue up; mobile revenue up; great momentum and acknowledgment from the media community,” she said.

Lisa Hsia, Bravo’s senior vice president of new media and digital strategy, said that the network’s big interactive initiative was “the L-Bar,” which involves shrinking the video TV screen by 80% and moving it up to the top right corner. That leaves an “L” being formed by space on the left side and bottom of the screen. In that “L,” Bravo can ask questions, offer information and post viewer responses.

Bravo plans to add the L-Bar to programming “where we feel it’s an appropriate time for people to interact,” Hsia said, and viewers will be able to interact live with television using their phones in real time.

“Viewers can write their comments on-air as they’re watching,” she said. “You can do live voting and polling. We can answer trivia questions.”

Bravo plans to expand on the concept down the road, according to Hsia.

“Eventually, we want to use this on-air interface to help drive live events, like viewing parties, competitive games, and push what’s happening in the computer or on-air out of the screen into real-life interaction,” she said.