USA Network Re-Enters Reality TV Arena, Taps Head Of Alternative Programming

USA Network is now officially a reality player. After an extensive search, the top basic cable network has hired syndication and unscripted executive Heather Olander as SVP alternative programming. Olander, who has started this week, will oversee all alternative development and production for the network, which had not had a dedicated reality executive for almost 3 years. She will report to USA’s president of original programming Jeff Wachtel.

Wachtel, whose background is in scripted TV, said the search for a head of reality was educational. “I learned a great deal about the unscripted series business,” he said, adding that in Oleander, “we found somebody who is extremely intelligent, very experienced and brings wonderful energy to things.”

USA is already teeing up the revival of WWE Tough Enough, its first reality series in 5 years, for an April launch. Wachtel hopes to have the first new reality show developed under Olander ready to premiere in the fall or in early 2012. Don’t expect it to be a variation on a popular format, like a dance show or a series set a pawn shop. “We may be looking for variations  of a theme that is out there later on, but right now, we will start off by finding something that is unique in the marketplace.”

Wachtel also doesn’t plan to go for volume: “We’re not going to throw a dozen shows out there and see what sticks,” he said. And, while pitching a wide tent, USA’s unscripted shows will not stray too far from the network’s blue-sky, aspirational programming brand. “People say we’re people who following a formula, but we see it more like walking a tight rope,” Wachtel said. “How do you stay true to the aspirational brand filter but find something that is intriguing and noisy enough to cut through the clutter?” 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.

Olander comes from CBS Television Distribution where she was VP of programming and development, overseeing development and production of new syndicated shows, including the pilot Excused, as well as first-run strips. Before that, she was at MTV, where she served as VP of original series development and current programming, managing the the development and production of such series as Rob and Big, A Shot at Love and Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods. She also did a stint as an alternative exec at Carsey Werner Mandabach.

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