*Takes a drag from a cigarette* You know, kids, back in my day you’d have to wait to watch your favorite ensemble reality show in order to find out what was going on in the cast member’s lives. You couldn’t just open up social media on any given day and see news of which couple was on the rocks. But seriously, what’s the deal with all the PR splits these days?
There used to be one good way to guarantee good reality TV: Get married. Pre-Scandoval, some of the most-watched episodes of various Bravo franchises were weddings. Cynthia’s wedding to Peter in The Real Housewives of Atlanta was the most-watched episode of season 3, raking in a whopping 4.38 million viewers. Katie and Tom’s wedding was the second most-watched episode of season 5, with 1.56 million viewers. Kandi Burruss and Bethenny Frankel got their own wedding specials.
But none of those ratings even came close to Vanderpump Rules’ Scandoval, which got a record 1.89 million viewers — more than double the amount of people who tuned into season 10’s premiere. When it was revealed that Tom Sandoval cheated on his girlfriend of nine years Ariana Madix with her friend and castmate Rachel Leviss, all hell broke loose.
Scandoval was a pop culture sensation at a scale never before seen in reality TV or pop culture at large. Bravo fans likely thought it would be a flash in the pan, a bolt of lightning that wouldn’t strike twice. That is, until five months later on August 31, when news broke that Summer House star Carl Radke had called off his engagement to his co-star and longtime best friend, Lindsay Hubbard. According to reports, just like with Scandoval, Summer House wasn’t filming them at the time, but Radke had called in the cameras to capture what would be their breakup conversation. It wasn’t quite on the same level, but it was the Scandoval of Summer House for sure.
Cut to the weeks leading up to the premiere of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In July, People reported that Kyle Richards and Mauricio Umansky had split after 27 years of marriage — and immediately after, fans started speculating the separation was due to the fact that Richards was embroiled in some kind of entanglement with (female) country singer Morgan Wade. If true, it would be on-par with Scandoval in many ways — Richards and Umansky are one of the longest-running and most beloved couples in Real Housewives history, and while they don’t have the shock factor of cheating happening within the friend group, they do have the added twist that Kyle’s would-be affair partner is a girl. (Spicy, yet homophobic undertones?) Richards and Umansky have repeatedly denied that anything is amiss in their marriage and insist they are just close friends with Wade, but we’ll apparently get to see Dorit question Kyle about her marriage in episode 2.
Then, literally the same day RHOBH season 13 was premiering, Us Weekly dropped a report that Dorit and PK Kemsley were separating. They denied the report to People — in an article notably published at 11:31pm, just a few hours after the episode would’ve aired. That episode, by the way, was watched by just over a million people, which was lower than episodes from last season but was also the fifth highest-ranked program of the day it aired.
So, what gives? I’m obviously neither a TV insider nor one of Page Six’s “anonymous” sources, but I don’t think it takes a genius to see that it would benefit Bravo to recreate some of the Scandoval magic. Breakups get eyeballs — the more dramatic and the less people see it coming, the better. Viewers want to watch relationships in trouble. The only episode that beat out Tom and Katie’s wedding for viewership in season 5, for example, was the episode “Cold Feet,” where Tom and Katie visit their wedding venue and get in a fight because Tom gets, as the name implies, cold feet.
But I also wonder if there’s something behind the public appetite for emotional wreckage. What made Scandoval and Summer House’s version of that (Sadke? Bummer House?) so huge was how the scandals played out on social media before the actual footage aired. The Washington Post wrote in 2021, “Social media’s algorithms tend to amplify drama, promote hateful speech and prioritize negativity” — which is not exactly news to anyone who’s ever been on social media. So you have a breakup, which audiences statistically like to watch, being discussed on social media, where people are more likely to be served drama — is it any wonder these breakups became a powder keg?
The timing of it all feels relevant too. We’ve been living through the summer of celebrity breakups, where famous couples have been dropping like flies. More and more in recent years, Bravolebrities have become celebs in their own right, and Scandoval really cemented their place in general pop culture. Now that they’re getting covered in TMZ and People in the off-season, it’s harder to clamp down on potential plot points and reserve them only for filming. On top of that, fans’ appetites for updates aren’t limited to when seasons are airing. We want to have every minute detail of these peoples’ lives plastered across Us Weekly and Reddit. Bravo is experiencing the Kardashian effect, where it benefits the network to have certain rumors leak in order to entice people to tune in to watch it play out on camera. It seems to be working, so long as Bravo doesn’t fall victim to the other Kardashian effect, which is where this happens so often everyone becomes completely numb to it.