Since its debut on Bravo in 2006, The Real Housewives of Orange County has been name-dropped by U.S. president Barack Obama, spoofed on Saturday Night Live and has spun-off series in Atlanta, Beverly Hills, New Jersey, New York City and Melbourne. In fact, over the course of nine seasons, the show – for better or worse – has become for many viewers synonymous with reality television.
Though the series was originally created by Orange County native Scott Dunlop, California-based prodco Evolution Media came on board in season two, and has steered Orange County ever since, as well as producing the Beverly Hills spin-off. When asked what the show contributes to the reality landscape now as opposed to when it first aired, CEO Douglas Ross (pictured above, left) says its consistency is its most enduring characteristic.
“We haven’t had to introduce a bunch of gimmicks to keep it fresh,” the exec explains. “The only gimmick would be that we rotate cast members to keep the interactions fresh within the show. It’s still a docusoap about these people’s lives, and as the imitators come and go and we see all these other trends in the reality space, what I think appeals to the viewers is that they know what they’re getting when they come to see our show.”
But as Ross and newly appointed partner Alex Baskin (right) will tell you, growing Housewives into a household name has meant weathering more than a few storms in the reality world – and on social media – and their team has worked hard to keep the brand relevant among a roster of competitors. Ahead of the series’ 10th season premiere tonight (June 8) at 9 p.m. EST/PST, realscreen caught up with Ross and Baskin to discuss the top production challenges of keeping Housewives going strong.
1. Casting — the good, the bad and the very loud
There is an understanding when casting Orange County that you don’t know what you’re going to get until the cameras start rolling. An incoming cast member needs to be relatable enough, but also outrageous; they must have a big lifestyle, while also having enough to gain from the show. They also shouldn’t have too much to lose, and further, connections need to be drawn between them. Moreover, while it’s difficult to put the cast together, it’s even harder to recast and find the right mix of people going forward, says Ross.
“What we’ve experienced is when we’ve brought in outsiders who don’t have strong connections to the existing crew, the audience ends up rejecting them because they don’t buy it,” says the exec. “And that’s a really difficult thing, because on the one hand, we are trying to stir it up, but we’re trying to stir it up in a real way and we’re trying to keep the ongoing cast on their toes by forcing them to continue to be honest and deal with fresh blood. But if it isn’t a fit or a real match or if the audience smells a rat, then we’re in trouble.”
2. Relaxing into the role
When casting a member of Housewives, talent needs to be comfortable with who they are, and generally, that means relaxing into the role and forgetting the cameras are rolling.
“Having them be on camera, we need to see the real person they are and the person the network selected them to be on the show in the first place,” says Baskin. “So just being themselves. It’s simple as that.”
Ross adds that viewers often tell them they feel like flies on the wall when watching the show – feedback the producers have aimed to adhere to as much as possible. “We want to get there on a big event,” he says. “We literally try to get there before they put on any make-up – we want to see the whole thing. It almost becomes relaxing for them to have the cameras there.”
3. A best friend and arch nemesis: social media.
In the first few seasons of Orange County, when social media was either non-existent or still in its infancy, it was difficult to gauge the extent of audience reaction to the series outside of individual comments made to the women or on the housewives’ personal blogs. With the evolution of Twitter and other real-time platforms, however, Ross explains that his cast is more sensitive to negativity online, and has grown increasingly self-conscious about its behavior.
“It doesn’t only happen when the show is airing but it also happens during production, because even though it’s against the rules, the women are constantly tweeting about what’s going on and some of the conflicts, and they’ll get feedback from their fans and their haters, but mostly the haters, so they start over-correcting based on people who have very negative things to say,” says Ross.
The producer points out that Bravo did a study on social media in relation to the Real Housewives franchise and discovered that only one percent of viewers are active on Twitter during the show, but this is the percentile that generally does the most damage. “Those are the ones who freak the cast out and we’re left to pick up the pieces afterwards because they’re so devastated by what one person in their basement in Des Moines has to say about them,” he adds.
4. Bringing off-camera storylines into the narrative
Just as Orange County has grown in popularity, so too has public interest in the women’s lives. While this bodes well for network ratings, it can be cumbersome for producers looking to document as much of the cast’s activities as they can.
“Our challenge is to tell the story on-camera as much as possible,” says Baskin. “Things happen in the off-season and that’s one thing. But also they’re not shooting 24/7, so that can be an issue as well. And we never want to be scooped by the tabloids.”
5. Cast and crew burnout
Production on Orange County is nine to 10 months, and cast members only have up to two months of vacation before having to start all over again. When the series first premiered, it had an eight-episode order, but now Bravo signs on for 20-plus episodes each season.
“So between actually making the show and promoting the show and doing that whole circuit, it’s a really long season for the cast, and crew as well,” says Baskin. “It’s draining and emotional and it’s something everybody faces. Because certainly if the audience feels the production isn’t up to the standard that everybody wants, there are so many choices out there obviously, and so many Housewives in similar shows that you can’t ever afford to let yourself down.”
6. Cutting through the Housewife clutter
With a slew of successful spin-offs on Bravo, it’s tough to maintain a distinct brand, but Ross says viewers remain loyal to Orange County because of its authenticity and status as the original series in the franchise.
“I often hear [viewers] say about Orange County that, ‘It’s still my fave, I still love that one,’ and I think part of our ability to cut through the clutter is to keep it authentic and keep it real, and to not throw artifice on it,” says Ross. “A good story with a good cast [that is] well-told cuts through the clutter, and I think that’s one of the reasons Orange County has maintained for 10 seasons.”
7. Fighting the perception of fakeness
Ross and Baskin are the first to admit Orange County is so outlandish on occasion that it must appear scripted, but the producers assure they have always pushed for authenticity. Though the show is produced to a certain extent, they say Evolution doesn’t do any more than encourage the women to throw a dinner party or have coffee with a friend in order to have the cast members interact and intersect.
“Other that that, whatever happens happens,” says Ross. “And sometimes the network is surprised by the direction that it takes because they will have thought, ‘Well, this is what’s going to happen this season based on what we saw last year,’ but what makes the show so fun for us and for the viewers is when left to their own devices, the cast always comes up with a much more interesting journey than what we could plan for them.”
Baskin says you could even consider the show “hyper-reality” because producers tell the women to say their immediate thoughts out loud instead of keeping things to themselves.
“If you don’t say it, then the audience doesn’t know what’s on your mind,” he says. “So in that sense, it’s a little bit more real than real life because we take more punches in real life and don’t want to say certain things. We never encourage them to fake anything – we tell them not to.”
8. Keeping up with the high standards of the network
Ross and Baskin credit Bravo with standardizing the Housewives franchise while letting each series have its individuality, but adds that the net has a strict set of criteria that needs to be met.
“They push us very hard to fine-tune the shows as much as we possibly can – right up to the point that they air,” says Ross. “And everything from exactly where and which music cue we use to the exact right interview byte to make sure we’re diving deep into these people’s psyches and characters that we don’t present the surface story. They give us enough money to produce the show in a way that I’m very proud of how it works. When our show is up against any primetime drama, I say this looks just as good.”