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Bravo’s Big Emmy Bet: The House of ‘Housewives’ Digs for Gold in Unexpected Places

As the network banks on old favorite "Top Chef," it also hopes to cook up nods for some hidden gems

This story appears in TheWrap's EmmyWrap Reality Issue.

"I'm like the Susan Lucci of reality," Padma Lakshmi told TheWrap minutes before she was to join Bravo's Emmy panel at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in North Hollywood.

"I mean, we won once, but we've been nominated every year I’ve been doing the show. It's always 'The Amazing Race.' They always take it. [Host] Phil Keoghan is so sweet, but God!"

It was refreshing to see Lakshmi’s competitive side make an appearance as the "Top Chef" host and judge noshed on the spread that was laid out for her and fellow “Bravolebrities” taking part in a panel discussion in front of a theater full of Emmy voters.

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"Top Chef" had been nominated for Outstanding Reality Competition four consecutive times before finally snatching the award from perennial winner CBS's "Amazing Race" in 2010. Since then, Lakshmi’s show has been nominated twice more but hasn’t been able to replicate the win.

“Obviously, "Top Chef" is a huge, important franchise for us,” said Andy Cohen, Bravo’s executive vice president of development and talent and the host of its late-night talk show "Watch What Happens Live." "And we're very proud that it beat 'Amazing Race.'"

To improve its chances of doing so again, Lakshmi came to the TV Academy to act as the "Top Chef" Emmy ambassador in the packed theater, each person with a vote to cast. What was interesting was that representatives from the network’s other previous Emmy-nominated programs weren’t there.

One would expect James Lipton, host of "Inside the Actor’s Studio," to be on a panel representing Bravo’s reality and nonfiction contenders. The talk show/actor’s master class, which just aired its 250th episode, has been nominated 13 times without a win. 

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And comedian/actress/controversy magnet Kathy Griffin seemed to be a shoo-in for the panel. Her reality series, "My Life on the D List," was nominated six times for Outstanding Reality Program, winning in 2007 and 2008. Additionally, her standup specials had been nominated twice in the Variety Special category, and Griffin has never been shy about her desire to win another Emmy. Last year, she actually referenced the program that has beaten her both times in the title of her special: "Kathy Griffin: Kennedie Center On-Hers."

But instead of Lipton and Griffin, Lakshmi was joined on the panel (just one tier of Bravo’s multi-layered Emmy marketing campaign that will include digital, print and on-air promotions) by "Flipping Out" star Jeff Lewis and "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" cast member Lisa Vanderpump.

“I root for my network, because they’re my team,” Lakshmi said when asked what she thought about her fellow panelists' shows. "I have to be honest that I don't have any fully formed opinions of their shows, because I don't watch them. That doesn't mean that they're good or bad, I just don't watch TV." (That’s because she doesn’t allow her 3-year-old daughter to watch, she added.)

Also read: Emmys: A Top Reality Producer Pleads – 'Stop Voting for the Same Shows Every Year'

The Emmy panel, really, was Bravo’s way of doing four things: showcasing its Emmy strengths with Lakshmi; reintroducing a long-running series they believe should be recognized with Lewis and Cohen's "Watch What Happens Live," as well as showing its support for its new series with Vanderpump, the "Real Housewives" spinoff, "Vanderpump Rules", for which the network hopes to land a surprise nomination.

“Does it seem kind of a ridiculous dream? It really does,” Vanderpump said of the possibility of her spinoff getting nominated or actually winning the gold statue. “But then, I don’t think any of this seemed possible.”

“It has a different feel to it than our other shows,” Bravo’s senior vice president of current series, Shari Levine, said about giving Vanderpump's show its Emmy support. “It is our biggest freshman series, I think after [Bethenny Frankel’s spinoff]. It was groundbreaking. Some of the things we did, in terms of how we premiered it with a crossover episode on "Beverly Hills" where literally it was a seamless transition … People talked about that for a very long time.”

"Vanderpump Rules" stars the Beverly Hills housewife and the ridiculously gorgeous (and over-the-top dramatic) staff of her West Hollywood restaurant and lounge, Sur.

“It’s the kind of show that gains a lot of attention, and it has a fresh feeling to it,” Levine told TheWrap. “And so for your Emmy voter, it is a show that can catch your attention for different reasons than 'Flipping Out' or 'Real Housewives of New Jersey.'”

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Lewis’ home-renovation show "Flipping Out" has actually been well regarded by television critics. Yet the series that stars the short-tempered, brutally honest and very funny Lewis and his team of house-flippers and designers has never been recognized with an Emmy nomination during its seven-season run. “Personally, I wish that 'Flipping Out' had been recognized, because I just am always a fan,” offered Cohen. “I think it’s different than every other show totally and stylistically.”

“I’m a tough sell,” Lewis admitted. “The show’s gotten a lot of buzz and a lot of attention, and it’s been on for seven seasons. But here’s the thing: I’m polarizing. I think people watch because they love me, and people watch because they don’t love me. I hate to use the word hate, but sometimes it’s hate. I think that affects the viewers, and I think that affects the voters.”

The cable network’s executive vice president of marketing, Ellen Stone, disagrees. “I don’t believe it’s Jeff,” she said. “I think that it just wasn’t 'Flipping Out’s' time yet, and there is a lot of wonderful TV programming in the category. I think the Emmy world hasn’t, to this point, really seen the show for how great it really is, all the cast and characters.”

It's virtually impossible to speak of the reality television world without including Bravo in the discussion. The network, which launched in 1980, has grown into one of the most prolific producers in the genre.

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In its first two decades, the cable channel was dedicated to covering the performing arts and independent film — "Inside the Actor’s Studio" is the last remaining remnant of that time. But the network had its renaissance in the early 2000s when it switched its programming to pop-culture-driven fare and began producing reality television after being purchased by NBC. (A couple of mergers later it landed in the NBCUniversal stable of networks.)

In 2003, the redefined network made its first big splash with out-of-the-box makeover show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." The series, which employed a gaggle of gay men making over heterosexual men, capitalized on the zeitgeist: metrosexuality. Since then, Bravo has made it its business to identify, even define, social trends with its reality series and managed to make them part of the popular culture — the “foodie” movement in the case of "Top Chef" or the phenomenal early success of ABC’s "Desperate Housewives" with its "Real Housewives" franchise.

Even as the network has extended its brand of unscripted fare in the last few years into technology, real estate and business-related shows, it still tries to churn out product that’s undeniably Bravo.

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“We do research, and people will know that’s a Bravo show,” Stone said. “And we’ll show them another show, let’s say a copycat in the 'Housewives' genre, and they’ll say, ‘No, it’s not Bravo.’ Because literally, the way the story was told was not in a way that is creative, with an aspirational quality that gets to the guts of the drama. It’s just not told like Bravo.

“And I think that’s why we believe we are Emmy contenders. We do believe in the craft. We do have standards no matter what show we’re doing. It has to meet Bravo’s criteria. I think it’s something that Shari and her team does amazingly well.”

And yet while Bravo’s most successful product, the "Real Housewives" franchise, is reportedly valued at a half-billion dollars, for some critics and serious television viewers, its portrayal of wealthy women and their over-the-top catfights represent the worst of the unscripted genre. Over the franchise’s five-season run, the Academy has never recognized any "Real Housewives" series with a nomination, no matter how many ad dollars it brings in and how many millions of invested viewers consider it appointment television.

But Bravo is still hoping it can break though. This year, it has singled out "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" as its best Emmy chance.

"It just adds to the insanity of my life over the past five years, to think that anything I would have something to do with would ever make it that far in the industry to be recognized at such an event," New Jersey star Caroline Manzo, who appears in the network's Emmy marketing campaign, said. 

"I appreciate Bravo for thinking that we can stand up with those kind of people," she continued. "It’s so surreal to see yourself like that and for Emmy consideration, and that your show has made an impact to some degree that it could be recognized to get an award like that."

The second-most-watched series next to Atlanta, the Jersey show stands apart from its sister shows because of its focus on family. Each woman has a relative on the cast, which elevates the drama to whole new levels with what feels like real world consequences.

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“Housewives are like a wine. They take aging,” Levine argued. “In the beginning, you’re not sure what to do with them. And then they kind of grow on you and become more and more part of your everyday world.

“I think now Emmy voters will be more open to the Housewives. We’re expecting that they understand them and recognize them and see the best in class of that type of reality show. There have been a lot of copycats that have come and gone very quickly. And the Housewives have stayed true and freshened up enough that they keep the viewers coming in and I think the Emmy voters will understand that and recognize that.”

Of course, Bravo has become synonymous with its public face, Cohen. "Watch What Happens Live," his web show-turned-late night talker on the cable network, has carved a niche into the late show world with its usual pairing of a Bravolebrity with guest stars from all walks of entertainment, including Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Meryl Streep and Sarah Jessica Parker.

"It is the only interactive live show in late night," Stone pointed out.

"Watch What Happens Live" reels in more women in the 18-49 and 25-54 demographic than any other cable late show, including E!'s "Chelsea Lately." This year, Bravo is hoping to snag a nom for the show in the Outstanding Variety Series category.