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Women Get in the Game

It’s game on for reality shows featuring women athletes.

From young, impressionable dancers to toned football players to nimble and strong pro wrestlers, reality shows featuring athletic female characters are winning over viewers.

Network programmers said shows such as Lifetime’s Dance Moms and Bring It!, E!’s WWE Total Divas and Oxygen’s new series Pretty. Strong. are resonating with a relatively young audience because they feature mostly aspirational stories of hard work, dedication, teamwork and perseverance.

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“I think viewers like seeing strong, talented women following their passion and making their passion their careers,” Jeff Olde, executive vice president of original programming and development for E!, said of the network’s pro wrestling-themed series Total Divas.

Unlike some sports-themed reality series such Fox Sports 1 and UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter — which focus heavily on the action involving aspiring mixed martial arts competitors — shows like Total Divas use sports as a backdrop to tell participants’ personal stories.

The series — which follows current WWE female performers, dubbed “Divas,” outside the wrestling ring — does not feature a lot of in-ring action. But Olde said the behind-the-scenes drama that occurs in the cast members’ personal lives has drawn strong viewership for E!, particularly in its key demo of 18-to- 49-year-old women.

Almost 900,000 adults 18-49  tuned in for season four of the series (per Nielsen live-plus-3-day figures), which concluded last month. Women comprised two-thirds of the overall audience.

“I think the audience also likes seeing women thrive in a world that is primarily dominated by men and creating their own sets of rules to do so,” Olde said. “While it is competitive, it is also a sisterhood for all of them.”

For viewers looking for some athletic competition, Lifetime’s dance-themed shows feature face-off s between dueling dance teams. The network’s four-year-old franchise Dance Moms and its 19-month-old series Bring It! depict the often dramatic and cutthroat competitive nature of dance schools.

Eli Lehrer, Lifetime’s senior vice president and head of unscripted series, said viewers have become invested in the preteens and teen-agers who appear in the Abby Lee Dance Company on Dance Moms and at Bring It!’s Dollhouse Dance Factory as they train and perform in weekly competitions.

“I do think an important factor in the success of the shows is that the people who are in it are very good,” Lehrer said. “Dance Moms succeeds because the kids are legitimately talented and are the best in the country in what they do.”

Oxygen will look to play in this arena with the Oct. 6 premiere of Pretty. Strong., about women who play in the all-female Legends Football League.

Ellen Stone, executive vice president of marketing for Bravo and Oxygen Media, said the show provides an aspirational look at women playing and thriving in a sport dominated by men.

“It’s about female empowerment, but it’s not about hiding the pretty. It’s about embracing everything it is to be a young woman,” she said. “It’s got the fun sports angle which is unusual and unique, but you also have a lot of really strong women coming together and being inspired, which Is good entertainment.”

Along with Pretty. Strong., Oxygen is working on a reality series featuring African-American ballet dancer Misty Copeland and one starring Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas, Stone said. The genre represents more than just what female athletes do on the field or the dance floor, she said — it highlights the inspirational stories behind their athletic success.

“We’re about storytelling,” she said. “Whatever the backdrop is we’re going to make it entertaining and exciting for the viewers.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.