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RHONY: What does the decline of a reality TV mainstay teach us about branding?

As an ardent reality TV viewer, I’ve delighted in this year’s astonishing, dramatic highs – the dual legal dramas engulfing this season’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City – and wallowed in the monotonous, contrived lows – the latest season of sister franchise The Real Housewives of New York City (RHONY). As I watched the latter, I pondered how a pioneering standard-bearer in the genre could suffer such a precipitous fall.

Beyond raising questions around what makes compelling reality TV, this felt like a branding question. What happens when consumers feel betrayed by a brand, and more importantly, how can a brand win them back? At Egg, we see lessons in branding everywhere we go, even in reality TV. Similarly, when we see a brand in distress, we can’t help but seek to find the true roots of the problem and identify potential opportunities to solve for them.

For those unfamiliar with RHONY, here’s a quick refresher. The series launched in 2008 as the second in Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise (following the first, Orange County-based installment). The show follows a group of wealthy Manhattanites with alternating looks at conspicuous consumption and Dynasty-esque drama. Over the years we’ve seen dueling brunches, a disastrous trip to St. Bart’s and a deranged woman throwing her prosthetic leg across the room at upscale eatery Le Cirque. Yes, it’s been a journey.

The latest season sought to infuse the caviar and designer handbags with a dose of reality. Shot during the pandemic, the stamp of COVID was hard to ignore – production even stopped at one point because multiple cast members tested positive for the virus. Beyond this, Bravo cast the franchise’s first African-American housewife, former Fox News co-host Eboni K. Williams, who was quick to raise questions around the all-white cast’s white privilege and unconscious (and conscious) bias.

It’s entirely possible for a reality show to meaningfully engage with real, culturally-relevant issues. One of the reasons The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has been so compelling this season is because it’s dealt with a slew of real-world issues, race among them, in a direct, open, and authentic way. The New York ladies have done exactly the opposite, with star Ramona Singer basically walk off camera whenever the subject of racism would come up. If the show won’t authentically engage in the conversation, there’s very little for viewers to latch onto.

And they haven’t. The show posted its lowest-rated episode ever (just 764,000 live viewers compared to 1.33 million for the previous season’s premiere episode) and, in an unprecedented move, saw its post-season reunion episodes canceled.

So, how does Bravo rescue a show in a tailspin? No matter the category, we believe brands who
have lost their way should make two swift moves:

  • Fess Up – Brands should acknowledge the strain they’ve caused in the consumer relationship. Being open and transparent marks the first step in re-engaging lost consumers.
  • Revisit Your Core Essence – It’s important to remember the initial promise brands have made to consumers and work to build back that core essence. Subway’s recent “Refresh to Be Fresh” campaign highlights one-way brands can showcase the core attributes that attracted consumers in the first place.

Beyond these holistic branding principles, recent work we’ve done with a television network speaks to the specific challenges around engagement with reality TV viewers. The following key takeaways may be helpful in steering RHONY back to its viewers:

  • If You’re Going to Be Real, Commit to It – Viewers want to recognize the world they see on screen and see culturally relevant topics and trends explored and acknowledged. However, going in halfway won’t work. If shows are going to court real issues, they need to be prepared to have a candid, authentic conversation about them.
  • Vary How We Tell the Story, Not the Story Itself – Viewers value a clear, consistent and reliable premise, so while shows might not want to veer from the story they’re telling, there’s opportunity to break out of established formats to tell the story in new, different ways to keep audiences engaged.

No matter what category your brands sits in or whatever challenge you may be facing, we’d love to hear about. Give us a ring.