The most interesting thing about The Moment, a new reality series that premieres on USA tonight, is what it says about the cable TV landscape. USA has ruled the cable ratings for seven straight years, with light, bright procedurals like Burn Notice, White Collar, Royal Pains, and Covert Affairs. Now, starting with The Moment, USA is adding reality shows and comedies to its lineup. Is this a case of fixing what isn’t broken, or a smart business move?
I found The Moment, in which ordinary Americans are given a second chance at their dream jobs, worthy but not terribly compelling. Then again, I’m not much of a reality fan. And even if I don’t watch, the fact that The Moment is on USA’s schedule won’t spoil my appetite for the network’s perky procedurals. (After all, it didn’t change my rosy view of Mad Men and Breaking Bad when AMC aired the execrable Small Town Security.) USA will continue to develop new dramas—Graceland, an original series about undercover agents who live in a bitchin’ beach house, will premiere on June 6—and its summer schedule is packed with familiar favorites.
But USA appears to believe that it has maxed out its current audience. Earlier this week, USA’s co-president Chris McCumber told me, “To grow, we need to be in reality.” USA is also moving into comedy, having laid out big money—$1.5 million per episode—to air Modern Family in syndication, though it hasn’t scheduled any original sitcoms yet.
The network’s success to this point is based on creating shows that share a pleasing similarity without becoming joyless clones. As I wrote last year:
USA series like Burn Notice, set in Miami, and Royal Pains, in the Hamptons, are all sun, swimsuits, and seersucker. The heroes are smiling and stylish … and they’re always surrounded by a loyal coterie of friends and family. They’re exceptionally good at their jobs, sometimes freakishly so … and best of all, you can miss an occasional episode and still know exactly what’s going on.
The Moment drawns on many of the standard USA procedural elements. It’s aspirational and upbeat—what could be more pleasant than seeing good people get another chance to accomplish their life goals? Friends and family are front and center—the dreamers are nominated by relatives, and, in the two episodes that I’ve seen, the love and support of friends and family is key to their success. The second-chancers are all talented—they’d have to be to take photographs for Sports Illustrated, drive on the NASCAR truck circuit, or skipper an America’s Cup vessel—and they’re mentored by seasoned pros.
There is, in other words, a wholesomeness to the show that’s sometimes hard to find in reality television. And though faith and religion aren’t specifically mentioned in the first two episodes, executive producer Charlie Ebersol told me that the show is designed to promote Christian values. (Make of that what you will.) In the early episodes, USA’s “blue skies” philosophy is taken quite literally: The first candidate gets a chance to take action photos of trick planes while strapped into a helicopter.
Later this year, USA will add Summer Camp, a reality competition; The Choir, in which British choirmaster Gareth Malone unites communities in song; and Partners in Crime, a “docu-soap” about a pair of Staten Island criminal attorneys. Sunny days, strong characters, and buddy comedies: USA obviously knows its brand. And by the time its peak season—summer—rolls around again, we should know whether it has succeeded in conquering new territory.