When asked to describe the format and tone of his late-night talk show, host Andy Cohen stated, “I think it is just a weird combination of people. You don’t know what is going to happen. I think it is a Fellini movie mixed with Wayne’s World.”1 As improbable, and even ludicrous, as this statement might sound, it is in fact an accurate description of the outlandish and eccentric offerings of Watch What Happens Live. An extension of Bravo’s successful Real Housewives franchise, most specifically the franchise’s annual reunion specials, the nightly talk show largely is composed of questions from at-home viewers via phone calls, text messages, Facebook, and Twitter.
While WWHL posits itself as an innovative, interactive talk show, in actuality it is a blatant marketing tool for Bravo’s reality shows, NBCUniversal’s scripted shows and Universal films, and key network sponsors. The show’s interactive component and web-based “after show” also attempt to capitalize on the new phenomenon of cult television shows with highly devoted web followings in the form of fan websites, virtual communities, and message boards. Cohen has seamlessly placed WWHL into this type of online fandom by structuring the show as a sort of “on-air chat room” in which die-hard fans are able to interact with their favorite Bravo stars, as well as each other, in order to speculate about the direction and content of future episodes. Cohen has skillfully used the platform of WWHL to brand himself as a new and approachable reality star and pop culture celebrity with aspirations of hosting more well-established shows for traditional broadcast networks. Cohen and WWHL’s growing popularity among American viewers and industry professionals signals a growing change in the configuration of the late night talk show universe—one that attempts to mitigate aggressive advertising techniques by increasing viewers’ direct engagement with the show’s content and stars.
Playfully called “Andy’s Clubhouse,” the show’s set explodes with color, textures, digital graphics, and, most importantly, a mixture of overt and subtle product placement. Decorated with elaborate bookcases and sleek end tables, the “clubhouse” is filled to the brim with various tokens from pop culture. By including an eclectic assortment of items from high and low art (such as Christian Louboutin heels, bobblehead dolls, Art Deco paintings, vintage Barbie dolls, and Grecian sculptures), the show’s set is at once approachable and aspirational. While the cultural artifacts that compose the WWHL clubhouse are in the physical background, they foreground the show’s central purpose: product placement and network promotion. Just like the reality shows that directly precede it—specifically The Real Housewives—WWHL portrays a luxury lifestyle as attainable for its target demographic—specifically adult females—by intermixing extravagant items with everyday products. By the same token, by placing bottles of Tide detergent and Coca-Cola bottles on the same level as Tiffany jewelry and Birkin handbags, WWHL increases the cachet of these commonplace items, and, by extension, the show’s key advertisers.
Unlike other late-night talk shows, WWHL blatantly, and exclusively, supports the interests of the Bravo Network and NBCUniversal, its parent company. The discussions and pre-chosen viewer questions focus solely on Bravo reality series, while the guests of the show are almost exclusively NBCUniversal stars. The majority of WWHL episodes include one guest star from a Bravo reality series and another guest from an NBCUniversal scripted show or feature film. (For example, Brad Goreski of Bravo’s It’s a Brad, Brad, Brad, Brad World appeared with Cheyenne Jackson of NBC’s 30 Rock). The well-known and respected actors that have been on the show—including Holly Hunter, Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson, and Tina Fey—refrain from discussing or promoting their upcoming projects, instead providing commentary on newly premiered episodes of The Real Housewives or Top Chef. When actors do happen to discuss their films and television shows, they are limited to discussing their private lives and the behind-the-scenes gossip (e.g., “Who was your favorite onscreen kiss?”).
Providing the viewer with a glimpse into their private lives, the actors appear delightfully self-deprecating, friendly, and approachable—all elements that are key to the successful engagement of the talk show audience. Several of WWHL’s guests have made a point of “playing” on their public image throughout the course of their appearance on the show, with the most obvious example being Fiennes. An Academy Award-nominated actor, Fiennes is perhaps best known for his role as the villainous Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter film series (as well as starring in the critically-acclaimed Universal film Schindler’s List, which was released on Blu-ray soon after Fiennes’s appearance on Bravo). By willingly spoofing his performance as the Voldemort character, making light of his critical acclaim by participating in a pajama party, and voicing his opinion about various Real Housewives, Fiennes was able to get in touch with a new, pop culture-driven audience.
Besides offering a pleasing contrast to WWHL’s high-profile guests, Bravo’s reality stars serve a far more important function by directly engaging with viewers about the content of their respective shows. By scheduling WWHL directly after Bravo’s reality programming, Cohen and his guests are able to provide immediate commentary on these shows. In fact, WWHL focuses so heavily on these reality series that if viewers miss even one of the newly premiered episodes of The Real Housewives or Top Chef, they are likely to be confused by much of the talk show’s content. With the sole source of questions for the show being viewers, WWHL allows Bravo superfans not only to conduct a scene-by-scene deconstruction of their favorite series but also to interact with their favorite stars and each other.
But perhaps one of the most unique elements of WWHL is the powerful presence of its host as the undeniable central focus of the entire show. Cohen does not ask guests his own set of questions or guide the conversation while remaining on the periphery; instead, he relies solely on submissions from viewers, and in many instances his work on Bravo’s other shows becomes the main topic of conversation for WWHL’s guests. For example, shortly after airing the reunion special for The Real Housewives of New Jersey (featuring regular cast member Teresa Guidice), Cohen presented a viewer poll that asked, “Was Andy too hard on Teresa?”2 The majority of the episode focused on Cohen’s interactions with Teresa, with guests and viewers voicing their opinions while Cohen used the show to explain his actions.
The structure of that episode is not an isolated case: most (if not all) WWHL episodes place Cohen at the forefront of the discussion. Cohen functions less like a talk show host or interviewer than a sitcom or variety show star that has invited a few guest stars to his “clubhouse.” In an interview with the Associated Press, Cohen reinforced this characterization by saying, “I think I am approachable…I mean, it is me inviting you, the audience, into my den to have fun with me…And I think people can tell I’m honestly having fun.”3 Cohen’s description of WWHL seems to resemble the structure of a contemporary reality show (in which well-known celebrities invite viewers into their “dens” or private lives) instead of a talk show (where the featured guests are given more emphasis). This statement shows that for Cohen the most exciting aspect of hosting his late-night talk show is promoting himself as a pop culture icon.
Successfully ingratiating himself with the audience has allowed Cohen to use WWHL as a platform to promote his own products as well as his skills as an onscreen personality. Cohen has infused the set of WWHL with his own catchphrases and merchandise. Shortly after the show made the transition to Bravo’s primetime schedule, Cohen attempted to coin the terms “Mazel” and “Jackhole” as his catchphrases. Having emblazoned the words on T-shirts, sunglasses, and even shot glasses (all of which are available for purchase on his website), Cohen has strategically placed these items around the WWHL set.
The laid-back atmosphere of WWHL has allowed the show’s ulterior motives to remain hidden, most specifically its desired manipulation of audience tastes and consumer practices. While the prospect of greater audience interaction with the television medium has wonderful, almost democratic possibilities (with the viewer being given the chance to dictate his or her preferences to showrunners and producers), this relationship could easily be manipulated by producers and network executives to serve their own interests. For example, the approachable and whimsical persona Cohen has cultivated on WWHL, along with his ability to interact directly with his audience, has given him the opportunity to slyly promote NBCUniversal, its key sponsors, and himself without serious criticism from journalists or media scholars. The show’s seemingly trivial content and juvenile exterior has prevented it from being seriously examined; however, the prospect of this format becoming an industry norm may signal a new era of pervasive and “affective” advertising.4 It is still unknown if WWHL’s formula will catch on throughout American broadcasting as a whole. It seems that for now critics and audiences will just have to wait and “watch what happens” next.
1. ^ Consuelos, Mark. “Bravo’s Andy Cohen Talks Housewives and Watch What Happens Live.” RealityTea. N.p., 1 Aug 2011. Web. 19 March 2012.
2. ^ “Poll Results.” Bravo TV Official Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2012.
3. ^ “Andy Cohen’s Booked by Bravo Five Nights a Week.” YouTube. N.p., 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Feb 2012.
4. ^ Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. 61-62. Print.
Jessica Fowler is a recent graduate of UCLA’s Master of Arts program in Cinema and Media Studies and will be pursuing her Ph.D. in the Fall. She received a B.A. in Film Studies and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Georgia. Her research interests include Hollywood films produced for the international market during the early sound era and the impact of Top 40 radio on television productions of the late 1960s.