How Oxygen's Reality Spinoff 'The Glee Project' Almost Didn't Happen

Robert Ulrich, left, and Chord Overstreet

"Glee" creator Ryan Murphy, who has "ultimate say" on the winner, tells THR: "I went from not wanting to be involved to realizing I had to be involved because it's part of the brand."

Everyone wants a piece of Glee. In its second season, the Fox phenom has become a ratings and merchandising powerhouse, while the show and its stars continue to rack up awards and magazine covers.

In June, Oxygen -- the NBC Universal-owned cable network that targets young women with a bevy of "live out loud" personalities including Tori Spelling, the cougars-in-training of The Bad Girls Club and come this spring Paris Hilton -- will expand the Glee canon with a reality show spinoff. But The Glee Project -- a 10-episode star search where the winner gets the jackpot of a lifetime: a seven-episode arc on the third season of Glee -- almost didn't happen.

The project was originally set up at Fox, where it was set to air in conjunction with the second season of the show. Early last year, the network and studio 20th Century Fox Television launched open casting calls -- via MySpace -- with plans to film the call-back auditions for a multipart special. But by June, the project was dead, the victim of series creator Ryan Murphy's increasingly breakneck schedule.

But Oxygen executives took the message of the Journey-via-Lea Michele hit "Don't Stop Believin'" to heart and refused to let it go.

Glee, said Jason Klarman, president of Oxygen Media, "speaks to the 'live out loud' brand in a way few shows do at this moment in the culture. It's hopeful. It's living life on your own terms. It's just so core to who we are."

So when Oxygen last June made a pre-emptive bid for off-net rerun rights (to the tune of about $500,000 per episode), the Glee reality project evolved as a sticking point in that deal, according to sources. The studio offered a variety of sweeteners for the syndication deal including aftershows and other spinoff exclusives. But the reality show was the priority for Oxygen.

"No deal like this has ever been done where you've got a reality spinoff of the hottest show on television -- on another network," Klarman said.

And Oxygen is already ramping up; the network will mount a second-season "Gleek-end" marathon beginning at 11 a.m. Feb. 5. The marathon coincides with the post-Super Bowl return of Glee on Feb. 6. Reruns of Glee will begin airing regularly on Oxygen in third-quarter 2013. And the network is contractually permitted to mount additional seasons of The Glee Project for the duration of the deal, which extends beyond the currently slated three season of Glee, sources said.

Getting Murphy back on board was key.

"I went from not wanting to be involved to realizing I had to be involved because it's part of the brand," Murphy said. "The person that we choose will be on the show next year," adding that he will have "the ultimate say" on who is chosen.

The announcement that Murphy and fellow Glee executive producer Dante Di Loreto were on board as executive producers of The Glee Project did not come until a couple weeks ago. Reality veterans Michael Davies and Shauna Minoprio of Embassy Row are also executive producers.

Meanwhile, Glee casting director Robert Ulrich is quarterbacking the auditions: 37,000 have submitted applications online, while thousands of additional aspiring Glee stars have turned up at open casting calls in Chicago and Dallas, where cast members Chord Overstreet and Darren Criss were on hand. The pool will be whittled down to 12 finalists, who will undergo a rigorous Glee boot camp. There will be no god-awful William Hung-types featured for maximum ridicule.

"It's not like sing a song for 30 seconds under water," Klarman said. "It's much more a look into a casting process. We're committed to doing something that is worthy of the Glee brand. The goal is to find someone that Ryan is truly passionate about and wants to write for."

Shirley Halperin contributed to this report.