First, I have to ask: do you remember when Bravo portrayed itself as an arts network? That showed fine arts performances? That's where James Lipton's show came in, and they used to have art films, even, I think. And then slowly, very slowly, some reality shows would creep in, but they were always very clearly tongue-in-cheek, an opportunity for the educated elites to make fun of and be horrified by the stage mothers whose daughters compete in beauty pageants and that sort of thing. It was very clear that these occasional shows were MAKING FUN OF the people who consented to be on them, and because it was hard back then, in the earlier part of the first decade of this century, to imagine that anyone would really want to be on reality t.v. (other than very young people who hadn't figured out yet that what they put on the internet was permanent), it seemed ok to laugh at and be horrified by them.
And then, at some point, Bravo reinvented itself. It was no longer interested in the arts, although it let James Lipton keep his show because Lipton's leers and naked desire to be as sexy as his young male guests was something the audience could laugh at and be horrified by. Also, watching the actors talk about real things (as opposed to posing and trying to be cool on late night talk shows) was kind of fun, especially in the early years when they had serious, accomplished actors on the show rather than folks like Roseanne Barr, the cast of The Simpsons, Bon Jovi, and other performers who somehow seemed to bring down the level of the show.
Even though the network kept moving more and more in the direction of reality t.v. and offered less and less quality programming, the first episode of The Real Housewives franchise - in fact, that whole first season - continued to poke fun at the reality stars. It was clear that TRHs were women we should not take seriously, that their ostentatious wealth and plastic looks were presented as a farce. In the first reunion shows, Andy Cohen was clearly making fun of these women, and I even felt a little sorry for them because they thought that they were adored and admired, while we were really laughing. It didn't make me feel good to watch real people and behave this way. I felt like we were setting them up, but the show was addictive, and it was hard to look away.
However, now we are in quite a different situation. TRH franchise has changed its perspective, building an audience that loves - or hates - the characters, but that always takes them seriously. Andy Cohen has come out from behind the camera and is now part of the entertainment. No longer do we laugh so openly because the show no longer presents the women as a joke. Funny, yes, at times - but their ridiculous lifestyles are often taken for granted. We might think it's insane that Taylor spent over $50K on her little girl's birthday party, but it's not something we fixate on. We are more concerned about whether or not her husband deserves her. If we like a character, we are less likely to mind their obscene wealth or to think about how many people could be fed with the money they spent on handbags. We used to make these comparisons. When Teresa, who thinks it is icky to live in a house that someone else lived in previously, "writes" a cookbook, no one thinks, "hey, this chick knocks over tables and picks fights - she's unbalanced and has a mean streak and should not be a role model." Instead, her book becomes a best seller (despite the fact that she thinks "whole wheat" means "wholly made of wheat" (I am not kidding - look at her discussion of pasta in the beginning of the book). There are any number of women viewers who would be happy to curse me out for daring to criticize Teresa. Meanwhile, Andy has become a sort of charming (or annoying, depending on your perspective) referee who pops up at the end of the season (and in his own show on which he invites celebrities and RH cast members to talk about which RH they love or hate. However, he now takes the women seriously. I suppose this is preferable to tricking them into appearing in order to be made into a national laughingstock, but it reflects the reality that the viewing public also seems to take them seriously, to relate to them, to think of them as celebrities they can reach out and talk to (and they do - and unlike real celebrities, these women are much more accessible to their fans).
Meanwhile, Luann is doing a cameo on some crime drama; NeNe is trying to make a go of (poorly) interviewing celebrities; everyone and their dog is releasing singles. As a recent blog by a Bravo crew member noted, TRH franchise is about fantasy; Bravo is no longer showing us how distasteful conspicuous consumption is, but they are now packaging it as acceptable because, really, viewers, wouldn't you like to hang out with these lovely, interesting, rich ladies? And what is talent, anyway, when it comes to acting or singing? Isn't it really just about celebrity and marketing?
It is a long, long way from an arts network. A long, long way.