Defying the downturn: Bravo and beyond

April 14, 2009, 9:55 PM UTC

Defining a brand and sticking to it is always difficult. Particularly in a downturn.

Which is why the success of Bravo – the NBC Universal cable network that serves up food, fashion, beauty, design and pop culture to upscale audiences – is all the more impressive.

This morning, I went to Bravo’s “upfront” presentation, where NBCU’s Lauren Zalaznick, who built the network, and her team pitched their new season and their growth story: a 38% year-to-year rise in adult 18-49 TV ratings, bigger gains online, and 97 new advertisers, including AT&T and McDonald’s and BlackBerry , in the past year.

Sales chief Susan Malfa noted that Bravo’s “affluencer” audience (the network claims to have the most upscale and educated viewers in cable) is “fairly recession resistant.” So she says, but don’t you think that investors in Saks and Coach and other beaten-down high-end brands would wonder about that?

Here’s the thing: Bravo’s success derives, really, from brand consistency that other marketers could learn from. The network’s unscripted programming – primarily, cutthroat creative competitions like Top Chef and over-the-top docudramas like Real Housewives of Orange County – are pure escapism. That escapism syncs with boom times but may resonate even more during times of crisis like we’re in right now. Among the new shows on Bravo’s let’s-deny-the-downturn slate: NYC Prep, which follows six privileged kids who attend private school in New York City, and Miami Social, a lush-life version of Friends set in Miami Vice territory.

Double Exposure, another new show that Bravo previewed this morning, features backstabbing fashion photographers. It looks as loud and annoying as CNBC’s Jim Cramer (another over-the-top character in General Electric’s TV cable stable). The new Bravo program that might appeal to business folks: Design Sixx, about entrepreneurs Bob and Cortney Novogratz, who have six kids (now seven, since the show’s filming) and make their living buying, rehabbing, and selling homes to rich people. Great people, the Novogratzes – I know them, though not well, since Bob is the brother of Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen Fund, and of Mike Novogratz, the president of Fortress Investment Group . (See Jacqueline’s Guest Post about her investing in to help the poor in Asia and Africa.)

Bravo also announced today that it’s branching out into scripted programs. More escapism – what else would it be? One show is called Blueprint, about best friends, one straight and one gay, who run an architecture and design firm in Manhattan. The other is 30 Under 30, which tracks the interconnected lives of 30 young people who have been christened superstars by a hot magazine (Fortune?!).

And scheduled to launch next week, April 20: Bravo’s first iPhone application. The Real Housewives: Personal Favs app will be city shopping guides with recommendations by Bravo talent including, yes, those Real Housewives of the OC, Atlanta, New Jersey…and who knows where else that brand can travel?

As for NBC Universal, the boss, CEO Jeff Zucker, told me this morning, “It’s not as bad as it could be.” The local TV news business is “a disaster,” he admitted. But Universal’s movie business has held up surprisingly well, he said. And NBCU’s cable channels – including USA Network and SciFi and MSNBC, as well as CNBC and Bravo – are a much-needed growth engine for struggling GE , which reports first-quarter earnings on Friday. Stay tuned, as they say in TV land.

P.S. Did you catch my boss, Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer, on The View this morning?! Andy was on with Joy and Whoopi and the gals to talk about Fortune‘s cover story, How to Get a Job. He named two companies that are hiring: Wal-Mart, , which added 33,000 jobs last year alone, and HCA, the Nashville-based hospital giant. An HCA exec who was in the show’s audience said that 9,000 jobs are available there. Hard to believe!