Who says all the conflict on reality TV shows is staged?
As Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York” began shooting its eighth season, three members of the show’s ensemble cast of contentious wealthy Manhattanites—LuAnn de Lesseps, Sonja Morgan, and Ramona Singer—remained locked in salary negotiations.
Their goal: to approach the $1 million that their co-star, Skinnygirl cocktail mogul Bethenny Frankel, reportedly earns per season, according to New York Post website Page Six. A source close to “The Real Housewives” show told Page Six that the other cast members’ salaries “aren’t even close” to Frankel’s. This knowledge motivated the trio to band together and hold out for mutual gain, according to a second source. The show reportedly began filming with Frankel and two other “housewives,” Dorinda Medley and Carole Radziwell, but not with de Lesseps, Morgan, and Singer.
More than anything, the last-minute jockeying highlighted the gap between Frankel’s negotiating skills and those of her peers—as well as her talent for negotiating win-win contracts.
Detecting a bad BATNA
Asked by the TV show “Entertainment Tonight” about her coworkers’ demands, Frankel—known for her way with words—said, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered, and negotiation is definitely an art form.”
“I would venture to guess that most of these women are not willing to walk away, so it’s all a useless exercise in nothing,” Frankel continued.
Frankel’s remark demonstrated an impressive—but not surprising—familiarity with the concept of best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. If, as Frankel believes, de Lesseps, Morgan, and Singer have no appealing alternative to signing deals with Bravo—that is, if they have a bad BATNA—and if Bravo knows this, then they do indeed have little leverage and may be struggling in vain to win a win-lose negotiation.
The Bethenny Clause
It isn’t the first time Frankel has schooled her castmates in negotiation. When she signed on for the show’s first season, in 2008, she accepted a meager $7,250 for the year. Yet if Frankel understood she couldn’t engage in win-win negotiation right off the bat, she showed considerable foresight in bargaining her way out of what came to be known as the “Bethenny Clause,” according to the New Yorker: She refused to sign a pro forma clause stating that Bravo would receive a percentage of any business she promoted on the show. Bravo gave in.
An up-and-coming natural-foods chef and not a housewife at all when “The Real Housewives” began, Frankel told the New Yorker that she nonetheless decided to go all in while on air. “I was honest about being broke and being alone, and people connected to me,” Frankel told the New Yorker. “Which is why, in turn, they connected to [her first book] and products.”
Her sole intention for joining “The Real Housewives,” Frankel revealed, was to build and promote her personal brand. While arguing with her dates and fellow housewives on the show, she was frequently seen sipping her “signature cocktail,” the Skinnygirl margarita. She began calling tequila companies, asking be their spokesperson, she recounted to the New Yorker.
Soon came the game-changing deal. Frankel and a former liquor company executive teamed up for mutual gain to sell the Skinnygirl brand to liquor conglomerate Beam Suntory for a reported $120 million. The win-win negotiation resulted in Skinnygirl became the fast-selling spirits brand in the United States in 2010.
“I turned a brand around in, like, a year on television and nobody even knew that I was doing it,” Frankel told the New Yorker. And thanks to negotiating her way out of the Bethenny Clause, she hasn’t had to share a cut of her profits with Bravo.
More recently, Frankel has chosen to do brand-licensing deals over the type of equity deal that made her rich. In a win-win situation, manufacturers create a product and pay her about 8-10% of wholesale revenue for her intellectual property. The set-up gives Frankel incentives to promote Skinnygirl products without the burden of production and management.
After several years away from the show, and while coping with an ongoing bitter divorce, Frankel rejoined “The Real Housewives of New York” last season for her reported $1 million. Being back on TV helps her stay in the public eye and promote her products.
Meanwhile, as her costars’ negotiations continued, Page Six was reporting a crack in the armor: De Lesseps reportedly was showing signs of caving in.