Breaking into reality programming, USA opts for the upbeat — and none of Bravo and VH1's screaming "wives"
Can USA score hits with inspirational reality shows?
After becoming the top-rated cable network with a slate of optimistic, aspirational dramas, USA is branching out into reality – as well as comedy and late-night.
But it will soon find out if its sunny approach to drama can also work for reality, a genre where trumped-up conflict can lead to quick ratings success.
USA's "The Moment," expected to air this fall, finds Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner helping people achieve dreams like becoming a race car driver or deep sea diver after abandoning them to work 9-to-5 jobs. Warner can relate: He stocked shelves at a supermarket as he tried to break into the NFL. USA is also considering a series order for "The Choir," about uniting communities around music.
Sundance and Oprah Winfrey's OWN are in the midst of big pushes for positive-minded reality shows. But USA's viewership may make "The Moment" the ultimate test of whether uplifting reality programs can thrive on cable as well as feuding housewives do. OWN has struggled for ratings since premiering last year, despite recent improvements. Sundance doesn't release ratings.
Also read: Is Oprah's OWN Killing Itself With Kindness?
Other cable networks, meanwhile – from USA's fellow NBCUniversal property, Bravo, to Viacom's VH1, have found that nothing makes ratings pop like a gang of quasi-celebrity women popping champagne. And then bickering.
Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise is a cacophony of petty catfights, and VH1's primetime ratings soared 33 percent in the first three months of the year, thanks in part to the conflict-packed "Basketball Wives" and "Mob Wives."
The "wives"-oriented shows tend to be the most fight-filled because they have no built-in competition, like "Survivor," "American Idol" or "The Amazing Race," all occasionally inspiring reality shows that juice their drama by stressing competitors' personal stories.
Also read: Oprah Calls OWN 'The Climb of My Life'
With no immunity idols or sing-offs to win, Bravo and VH1's wives turn on one another. Calamity and ratings ensue.
But what about shows like those on OWN, Sundance and — soon — USA, where no built-in competition exists, and the stars don't fixate on spats? Storytelling relies on drama, and such shows need to work harder to find it. A man's struggle to overcome his self-doubt on "The Moment" may be more intense than a race through a maze on survivor. But the maze is more visual.
USA hopes to deal with that challenge by offering reality personalities who are as unflappable as the characters on USA dramas. The network's fictional characters tend to be good, sexy and likeable, and to live in seaside locales. But the real-life characters will have to overcome real problems, said Heather Olander, USA's senior vice president of alternative programming.
"We wanted to make sure we're not giving you a prize for the sake of giving you a prize. That's not entertaining," she said. "It’s more of a 'Rocky' or 'Karate Kid' story than, 'Here is it is on a platter.'"
The network is going into reality for the first time since its 2005 rebranding under the slogan "Characters Wanted." USA's other reality pilots include "Bride or Best Man" in which a groom and best man try to plan a wedding, and the competition "Romancing the Globe," in which contestants look for love all over the world.
Although USA hasn't decided whether to order "The Choir," which is based on a British series, it showed scenes of it at its upfront presentation to advertisers last month.
One that received a particularly warm response featured a nattily dressed, mild-mannered choirmaster, Gareth Malone, walking into a rough-and-tumble bar to ask if anyone would like to join a choir he's starting.
It felt like a Sasha Baron Cohen stunt from "Borat" or "Bruno" — watch the strange man put himself in grave danger — but it went in an unexpected direction. A few patrons signed up to sing.
All reality shows aspire to such moments. The challenge is finding them. Among the critiques of OWN — including from your humble correspondent – is that it may be killing itself with kindness by emphasizing rosy outlooks over conflict.
In interviews, OWN and Sundance executives told TheWrap they saw no reason to go negative, saying it wouldn’t match their brands.
OWN Co-President Erik Logan said "bringing light," to borrow Winfrey's phrase, was an inherent part of the network.
"We think that we can have a very successful network that returns great value to our partners and nourishes and brings light to all of the viewers and our advertisers and our affiliates," he said. "The right way is going to be staying on brand and on mission."
That doesn't mean shying away from controversy, he said, noting that an upcoming episode of "Our America With Lisa Ling" will profile couples who swap partners.
"It's like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe there's going to be swingers on the Oprah Winfrey Network,'" he said. "But when they sit down you get a better understanding of how they see the world. And that is bringing light."
OWN's other upcoming shows include "Lovetown, USA," about matchmaking in a small town. Over the weekend it premiered "Lives on Fire," about female firefighters, and "Real Life: The Musical" a reality series in which people say difficult things – from "I love you," to "Marry me" – through song.
OWN has been projected to lose $142.9 million this year, but says it positive approach is steadily working. It notes that its ratings have been up for 20 consecutive weeks in target demo, women 25-54. For the year to date, it is also up in double digits in primetime and total day viewers in the demo.
Sundance, meanwhile, sees its reality shows as an alternative to more mainstream ones – just as the channel, which launched in 1996 with an emphasis on independent film, provides an alternative to mainstream hits.
"There's room for the blockbusters and the independents," said Sundance Channel general manager Sarah Barnett. "We don't want to do what everyone else is doing."
Last week, the network premiered "Push Girls," about four women paralyzed from the neck or waist down, and their pursuit of their dreams while living in Hollywood. The network also just greenlit "Get to Work," about a job program for the chronically unemployed, which is scheduled to air in August.
Barnett stressed that the victories on Sundance channel reality shows are hard-fought.
"People really struggle. It's like real life," she said. "Transformation and positive outcomes don't come easy."
One of the "Basketball Wives" says she has seen the light — and wants to bring more of it. During last week's reunion special, star and executive producer Shaunie O'Neal acknowledged the fourth season had too much fighting and not enough positivity.
"This season was bananas. It definitely was a lot more bad than good. And even when we did have the good, the bad seemed to outweigh it," she said. "We are going to do our best moving forward to show you some better content, some more positive, intelligent women, that, you know, we've got our act together."