'Housewives': No Apologies, No Holds Barred

The Real Housewives of NJ

The country may be suffering a recession, but there're no signs of it on one of Bravo's top reality shows.

Meet the "Real Housewives of New Jersey."

In the season premiere, housewife Teresa Giudice runs up a $120,000 furniture bill in a single store visit. She proceeds to pay with $100 bills.

"I hear the economy's crashing," Giudice says. "That's why I pay cash."

The real New Jersey housewives make no apologies for their big homes, big hair or big attitudes.

"You're either gonna love me or hate me," says Danielle Staub, another housewife. "There's no in between with me."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 ET.

And that, the network believes, is precisely why the "Real Housewives" franchise is a cult hit.

"I think that people are fascinated by the idea of taste, and different peoples' taste, or lack of taste," says Andy Cohen, head of original programming at Bravo and overseer of the "Housewives" empire. "So it's always interesting to say, 'Wow, she spent that on that?!'"

The "Housewives" franchise now has spinoff programs located in Orange County, Calif., New York, Atlanta and, of course, New Jersey. Each site has its own characters and feel, with one big thing in common: The women have money, and a flair for spending it.

The housewives of Orange County love their pinot grigio and fake tans. Almost all of the Atlanta women are current or former wives of professional sports stars.

The New York show gets inside the lives of the city's elite social climbers. And now there's the New Jersey version, which might as well be called "The Real Housewives of the Sopranos."

Cohen recently gave "Nightline" an inside look at the Bravo reality-show factory. Contrary to what one might think, the "Real Housewives" franchise attracts some of the wealthiest and most educated viewers of any show, on any network.

"We don't talk down to our audience," Cohen says. "We have TV about rich people, and it's compelling."

For last season's Orange County "Housewives," viewership was up 45 percent. New York was up 62 percent. And the New Jersey premiere brought in a record 1.7 million households.

"I think people start watching, sometimes, the 'Real Housewives' and they think, 'Oh, my God, this is a train wreck. And that's why I'm watching.' But nine times out of 10, they actually start relating to a few of the women," Cohen says. "We may not have the same amount of money in our bank accounts, but these woman -- that is kind of like me."

'Real Housewives': Plenty of Battles

"Relatable" may not be the first word that comes to mind when one meets the "Housewives." "Nightline" recently hung out with the newest cast at a New Jersey diner, where they were posing for a People magazine shoot.

"If you think I'm a bitch," New Jersey housewife Dina Manzo says, "bring it on!"

Manzo and her sister Caroline, who are married to brothers, are the core characters of the New Jersey show.

"Let me tell you something," Caroline Manzo says. "Me and my family are thick as thieves."

Caroline Manzo is the matriarch of the New Jersey show, and her loyalty to her large Italian family has earned her comparisons in the tabloids to Carmela Soprano.

"I am Carmela Soprano in one respect," Manzo says. "I would make a cannoli pie for my child. ... I say I'm June Cleaver and Sharon Osbourne. If you shook 'em up, that's what you'd get at the end of the day. I am a modern-day mother with values of yesterday. You have to pick and choose your battles."

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