It was late December, and in her office at Manhattan's 30 Rockefeller Plaza Frances Berwick was looking ahead — to 2008.
While Bravo was putting the finishing touches on what would become a record ratings year, with 20% gains across several key audience metrics, the network's executive vice president of programming and production, explained that she was helping prepare materials for the service's advertising upfront presentations.
Despite the success of the Emmy-nominated Project Runway and competition food show Top Chef, it was no time to bask in the Nielsen glow. “The challenge for us is that we can never stay still,” she said. “We do have six or seven returning shows, which is why we're concentrating as much now on 2008 as '07. How do we come up with different types of shows, things that are really new?”
Her target: Bravo's well-heeled and schooled audience, which leads cable entertainment networks in primetime in delivering the highest concentration of $100,000-plus households and college-educated viewers.
“We have an early-adopter audience, a crowd that likes the next thing,” she said. “We're going to lose people as quickly if we don't constantly innovate and rejuvenate. But that makes for the fun part of the job, too.”
Maintaining those motivations keys Berwick's success.
“She has broad strategic insights combined with long experience and deep knowledge in the tactical development and production worlds,” said Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick. “She has a consistent and definable taste level that drives the Bravo programming aesthetic.”
Those sensibilities are honed by a team of 20 who work closely with the production companies Bravo employs.
“We're pretty lean and very, very hands on, working in executive producers' roles,” she said. “We're able to keep a consistent tone in targeting the audience.”
Jane Lipsitz, principal at Magical Elves Productions, the production company for Project Runway and Top Chef, can bear witness to that.
“Frances has a very specific wish list for the show,” said Lipsitz. “She's quite good at balancing her expectations for the shows and respecting the creative process. Frances doesn't give notes for the sake of giving notes.”
It should be mentioned that Berwick has been stateside for more than a decade now. She came to cable TV and the U.S. by way of the theater and London. Berwick, who has a master's degree from Edinburgh University, began her path in the sponsorship division at Sadler's Wells.
“I studied languages, which really makes you good for nothing coming out of school. I applied for a job as an assistant at one of the oldest theaters in London that specialized in opera, ballet and modern dance,” she said.
She had two primary functions: helping to raise funds for new productions and working for the artistic director, booking the dance opera companies.
“It was fantastic, but I realized I'm not moving anywhere fast and I'm living on an overdraft, subsidizing [my] job.”
Within two years, she migrated to Channel 4 in the U.K. Working in the group development division, she sold the rights to the programs produced for Channel 4 in syndication and overseas.
“We did TV and theatricals like My Beautiful Launderette and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It was great because I then did get to use my languages,” she said. “But I didn't think that was ultimately what I wanted to do. I just decided that I loved TV; it was an extension of the arts and honestly, it paid a lot better than the theater.”
Those duties served as a bridge across the pond.
“We were selling to the States; many cable networks were still dependent on foreign acquisitions,” she said.
IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Schering picked up the story.
“Fran was doing a lot of business with Bravo for a few years. I had gotten to know her when she came over to [the National Association of Television Program Executives Conference and Exhibition] and we'd go to MIP or MIPCOM,” he recalled. “I was talking to my boss at the time, [former Rainbow Media Holdings head] Kathy Dore, about a programming position, and she said, 'What about Fran?' I said, 'Fran who?' because I didn't think Kathy knew her that well. But obviously she had made an impression.”
Berwick joined Bravo in 1996, but joked that Sehring had sold her a bill of goods.
“Whenever I had gone on sales trips, it was to L.A., Boston, Washington and New York. And the Rainbow people had always met me in the city,” she laughed. “So there I'm thinking it's New York and then I'm going [to Rainbow offices in Jericho, N.Y.]. And I'm thinking, 'This train ride is really taking a long time,' and I got there at 10:30 a.m. It was a cultural experience.”
At Bravo, she was instrumental in working on some of the network's initial forays into original programming with Bravo Profiles, The It Factor, Michael Moore's The Awful Truth and the Cirque du Soleil franchise.
While she “can't take credit” for Inside the Actors Studio, which had been on for a year before her arrival, she has high praise for the acclaimed series.
“It's a combination of things,” she said in a response to a question about why it still resonates. “The talent wants to be on the show because it has credibility. [Host] Jim Lipton, he books and researches the show himself. He's very involved in the editing. The actors have final approval. But less than 10% have had any comments or changes at all. They feel protected and it's cathartic for many of them.”
Berwick had her own transitional experience in 2002, when NBC purchased Bravo from Rainbow for $1 billion.
“It was a bit like a company divorce, however amicable. Most of the staff worked on both Bravo and IFC. You had to say, 'Yes, you're with IFC, you're with Bravo.' Then, there was attrition after the acquisition. It was sad because I loved the people I worked with at Rainbow.”
But there have been many positives in terms of being able to wield some of NBC's power.
“I believe that Queer Eye [for the Straight Guy] would have been a success; we developed it at Rainbow. But NBC took it to a new level. We couldn't have bought network spots. We shared NBC and Bravo marketing. We had the broadcast airs. All of that accrued to its benefit.”
More important, the makeover show that became a cultural phenomenon “allowed us to get more invested and that's how we generated Celebrity Poker, Project Runway, Top Chef and all the other originals.”
And there's more on the menu. “I think the second season of The Real Housewives of Orange County will generate real buzz. Top Design is very much in the style of looking at talented people under constraint,” she said, while also mentioning Shear Genius, a hairstylist competition series.
All told, Berwick, a two-time Emmy Award winner, and staff sift through 3,000 ideas a year.
“The focus is on competition shows. And some of the most fun storytelling is in unscripted. Some people you wish you had their lifestyles, and some you think, 'how can they live like that?' Either way, there is enough affinity to keep watching, even if you feel it's like a train wreck.”