Can Reality Shows Be Positive and Successful? USA Will Soon Find Out
Can Positive Reality Shows Succeed? USA Is About to Find Out
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.
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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.
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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.