'Real Housewives': Pop Culture's Reigning Drama Queens

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As daytime soaps die out, viewers are tuning into another kind of drama: the "real" kind. Reality TV is a breakout phenomenon, shaking up the television landscape by featuring regular -- and not-so-regular -- people, unscripted, in stranger-than-fiction situations. One series, in particular, has sparked its own pop culture sensation: Bravo's hit "The Real Housewives."

Debuting in 2006, "The Real Housewives of Orange County" set the stage for what has become a reality-TV phenomenon based on peeking inside the glamorous lives of ladies who lunch.

Two years later, "The Real Housewives of New York" premiered, a version that was less about luxury and more about catfights. "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" followed, cranking up the drama to a whole new level.

Watch the "20/20" special, "Reality Rule$: When TV Gets Real," online here.

And how could anyone forget the New Jersey "Housewives," who made bad look so good. The drama soared to new heights, with backstabbing, fights brimming with raw emotion, and even table-flipping.

Caroline Manzo, starring in her third season of the New Jersey show, said she believes there are benefits that come from starring in the series. "It's a tremendous gift to be able to see yourself from the outside looking in as others see you … because then you say, 'Oh, my God, maybe I was too harsh' or 'maybe I shouldn't have done that,'" she said.

Kyle Richards knows that sentiment only too well. She signed up for "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" with sister Kim, which added sibling rivalry to the mix, leading to an unforgettable fight in a limousine. With such rage and bad behavior on public display, one might think that those who'd been burned by reality-TV fame would want to call it quits once the cameras stopped rolling. But such is not the case.

The franchise has expanded to seven cities and has become a pop-culture guilty pleasure to an extent Bravo executive Andy Cohen never expected. Cohen, executive vice president of original programming and development, has rolled out more than 20 reality-TV shows, including "Project Runway," "Top Chef" and "The Real Housewives."

Cohen never thought that "The Real Housewives" would expand past Orange County. "My boss said, 'Let's call it "The Real Housewives of Orange County" in case we ever do this in another city.' And I thought, this is ridiculous. This is never going to happen in another city," Cohen said.

As the drama grew, so did the ratings, allowing the franchise to go global, with versions in Athens and Israel. But stateside, with seven ZIP codes under his belt, including Miami and Washington, D.C., Cohen says there is enough drama to go around. When asked if he'd ever expand farther, he said, "never say never, but, um, we got a lot of balls in the air. We got a lot of ladies to deal with."

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