USA Network Aims to Carve Out Own Reality Space

The Moment USA Network - H 2013

The Moment USA Network - H 2013

"The Moment," launching Thursday, will be the network's big test as it enters unscripted.

USA Network heads into uncharted territory when it enters the reality space with The Moment.

"Having such wide-scale audience, USA's goal is to create shows with broad appeal. Our reality shows also need to have a unique element that doesn't exist in the marketplace -- whether it be a central character or characters, or a theme or a story," Heather Olander, USA's senior vice president of alternative programming, tells The Hollywood Reporter of the network's unscripted strategy.

The character-first mandate falls in line with the network's long-standing "Characters Welcome" motto, though The Moment (debuting 10 p.m. Thursday) will be the first original reality effort to hit USA. Visually, "our reality shows need a similar visual quality and style that adheres to our brand," Olander says, referencing the network's "blue-sky" filter that seeps through its scripted programs.

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Back in 2011, when THR broke the news that the network was heading into reality, USA co-president Chris McCumber said of its appeal, "It's a new audience that isn't necessarily watching USA right now."

Hosted by former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, who went from bagging groceries to being named Super Bowl MVP in the span of 18 months, The Moment offers nine individuals the opportunity to relive their passions and the chance to fulfill their dream careers. The first episodes feature an aspiring sports photographer and a former NASCAR driver. (USA previewed the show over three airings in late March and early April as part of a soft launch.)

Known for its established scripted slate (including Burn Notice, Royal Pains, Psych and Suits), breaking into reality with The Moment was a deliberate decision, in large part because of the show's "procedural" DNA and because it has a "clear beginning, middle and end," Olander says.

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"We decided to launch The Moment first because of its universal theme of 'second chances,' a perfect talent at the center of the show in Kurt Warner, and we feel that the closed-ended format pairs nicely with our scripted series," she adds. The "second chances" concept, she believes, has yet to be touched.

Next up will be the in-production competition series Summer Camp, where former campers battle in an idyllic lakeside setting in challenges inspired by classic games, from Big Brother producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan. Set to launch in the summer, Summer Camp is a more literal interpretation of USA's tried-and-true "blue-sky" philosophy and hits "a different note," Olander says, who describes it as "pure fun, soapy and is a home run for summer."

Following Summer Camp is The Choir, a U.S. version of the U.K. format hosted by British choir master Gareth Malone, a talent the network believes will cater to all demographics. Expected to debut in the fall, The Choir finds Malone traveling the country to help unite various people through music. The more serialized docu-soap Partners in Crime, centered on two criminal defense attorneys as they tackle cases and navigate through their unique relationship, is also on the docket.

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With hundreds of networks vying for a sliver of the reality pie and the likes of TLC, E!, Discovery and Bravo relying on the unscripted space to fill the bulk of their schedules, USA hopes to be more targeted in its approach, instead identifying untapped areas to focus on and hopefully dominate in. One space Olander has her eye on tackling next: comedy. As she tells it, nothing has replaced NBC's "Last Comic Standing since it ended" in 2010. The odds of a Jersey Shore-esque show, however? Slim.

Though Olander expressed interest in toying with the dating genre, there was some hesitancy due to the success of The Bachelor franchise and timing-wise, NBC's forthcoming relationship series Ready for Love. Even so, there are areas the network will steer clear of, like food and cooking, due to the dominance of channels like The Food Network.

Unlike some of its cable competitors, USA isn't forced to replenish its schedule every few months; its summer slate already includes five returning scripted dramas and a new series (Jeff Eastin's Graceland). It's also the concept that holds priority, not fulfilling a specific quota. "We're format agnostic," Olander says, meaning an idea is often tailored into the format that best communicates its goal. (She also notes that there isn't a percentage of unscripted to scripted programs that USA one day hopes to meet.)

While some networks launch unscripted companions to their hit series (like AMC did with Mad Men and The Pitch), USA is not actively seeking out reality versions of its successful scripted properties, although there is some fascination with a talk show a la The Talking Dead, based off an established series.

The Moment serves as the first test for USA as it attempts to become a new destination for reality. (The network will continue its expansion plan when it marches into comedy with Modern Family reruns as a likely launch pad for originals later this year.) The challenge is not lost on Olander, who spent the past few years defining what a "USA reality show" is.

"The ultimate goal is to create a new USA hit," she says. "In both broadcast and cable, some of the biggest hits are reality series. USA has a massive fan base, and by adding a new genre to our program offerings, we have the potential to expand our reach even further and bring in new viewers."

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