USA Network continues its genre expansion with a big push in reality programming. The top basic cable network is close to ordering its first unscripted series in 5 years, WWE Tough Enough. It is also in the process of hiring a reality executive, and USA programming president Jeff Wachtel has been meeting with top reality production companies to talk about his plans in the arena. USA’s revival of Tough Enough actually came together separately from its current efforts in the unscripted area and stems from the network’ relationship with WWE through USA staple WWE Raw. Tough Enough, which features contestants competing for a contract with WWE, ran on MTV for 3 seasons, and in 2004 it moved to UPN where it aired for a season as part of SmackDown. On USA, it also is expected to run in tandem with USA’s WWE Raw series.
USA has only run a handful of reality series over the past decade, including Cannonball Run in 2001, Nashville Star in 2003 and Made in the USA in 2005. For its next generation of reality series, “we are certainly looking for aspirational, character-based shows,” Wachtel said. “We’d love a show that has a clean and promotable hook.” Wachtel’s favorite example of the type of show he is looking for at USA is CBS’ hit Undercover Boss. For now, USA is staying away from game shows as well as straight competition or straight docu series like The Hills. USA has not had a dedicated unscripted executive for the past 2 years. In 2006, its reality executive, vp alternative series and specials Libby Hansen, was given a dual role, overseeing development for both USA and NBC. With USA largely out of the unscripted game, Hansen dropped the USA responsibilities in 2008 when she was upped to SVP at NBC. (She has since left NBC.) For the past few months Wachtel and NBC Uni Cable president Bonnie Hammer have been meeting with candidates for the job and are expected to name a new reality topper soon.
Reality is one of two areas where USA is looking to go next, after building an expansive portfolio of light character-driven hourlong series. The other is half-hour series, where Wachtel says he is not looking for straight-forward comedies but more genre-bending half-hours like Showtime’s Weeds or Nurse Jackie. USA’s efforts are already underway – in May the network ordered its first half-hour script in more than a decade, Linda Bloodworth’s Driven, and over the summer USA made its first major half-hour acquisition in a long time, ABC’s Modern Family. Wachtel said he plans to launch a new reality series (in addition to Tough Enough) by the end of the year and hopes to also launch a half-hour series by year’s end. The goal for the next 2-3 years is to have 1-3 comedies and 3-4 unscripted series on the air.