TV Upfront

Can John Legend, Soap Divas Prop Up Pop?

Former TV Guide Network Looks to Steal Upfront Share

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'Queens of Drama,' a new series on Pop starring five soap stars.
'Queens of Drama,' a new series on Pop starring five soap stars.
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Pop, the cable channel formerly known as TV Guide Network, on Thursday announced it has enlisted the likes of John Legend, Tyra Banks and, um, Alan Thicke in a bid to steal upfront dollars from lifestyle platforms E!, Bravo and Oxygen.

In its first upfront presentation under its new moniker, Pop took the wraps off a slate of original projects that includes the a cappella competition series "Sing It On," a virtual "Real Soap Stars of Beverly Hills" (actual title: "Queens of Drama") and the previously announced "Losing It," an interview show in which celebrities spill the beans on how they misplaced their personal V-cards.

Inspired by the 2012 musical comedy "Pitch Perfect," "Sing It On" is co-produced by Core Media Group ("American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance") and Mr. Legend's Get Lifted Film Co. Pop has ordered eight one-hour installments of the series, which will premiere Wednesday, May 13.

"I had so much fun singing a cappella in college," Mr. Legend said. "We're excited to be a part of a show that documents the real ups and downs of this interesting world that many know nothing about."

The singer-songwriter also has signed a first-look development deal with Pop to create "projects that fit within the mission statements of both entities."

Premiering after the Daytime Emmy Awards, on Pop for the first time on April 26 and hosted by "America's Next Top Model" diva Tyra Banks, "Queens of Drama" features five soap stars -- Vanessa Marcil ("General Hospital"), Hunter Tylo ("The Bold and the Beautiful"), Crystal Hunt ("One Life to Live"), Chrystee Pharris ("Passions") and Lindsay Hartley ("Days of Our Lives") -- who work together to land a pilot deal. "Dynasty" alum Joan Collins and Donna Mills of "Knots Landing" renown will make the occasional walk-on appearance.

While Pop is pitching "Queens of Drama" as an exercise in "female empowerment," the usual tropes of the hybrid scripted/reality genre are apparent in the episode titles. The pilot ("I Don't Do Ugly") is followed in short order by the self-explanatory "People Should Keep Their Opinions to Themselves."

As for Mr. Thicke, the "Growing Pains" patriarch and TV jingle-smith returns for a second season of his reality series, "Unusually Thicke," in the fall. Also booked for a return engagement is the Canadian comedy "Schitt's Creek," which stars SCTV vets Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. Thirteen new episodes are in production for an early 2016 premiere; Season 1 of "Creek" concludes May 6.

If Pop is going to make a dent in its unscripted rivals' war chests, it will have to do so on pricing. Per Nielsen, Pop in the first quarter of 2015 averaged just 173,000 viewers in prime time, making it the 65th most-watched basic-cable network on the dial. That marks a 5% decline from the 182,000 viewers TV Guide Network delivered in the year-ago period.

By comparison, No. 22 Bravo in the first quarter of this year averaged 742,000 nightly viewers, while No. 36 E! drew 444,000 and No. 51 Oxygen eked out 249,000.

Reach aside, those cable properties enjoy a particular advantage in the marketplace thanks to NBC Universal's integrated ad sales structure and the sheer scale of the company's broader portfolio.

Pop is a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Lionsgate. CBS secured a 50% stake in TVGN in March 2013, buying out One Equity Partners, a division of JPMorgan Chase, for $100 million. That same year, TVGN generated $73.6 million in ad sales revenue, according to SNL Kagan, while Bravo, Oxygen and E! raked in a combined $730 million.