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USO's Military Virtual Programming Expands in Popularity, Depth

When the USO puts on a show to entertain service members in far-flung regions of the world, it's usually pretty spectacular. But these tours can't happen all the time. The USO can, however, entertain service members and their families with military virtual programming, which was implemented when the pandemic set in and has been thriving and expanding ever since.

MVP, as the USO calls it, runs the gamut from online chats with big-name actors, musicians and authors to baking sessions with famous chefs, discussions about true crime with popular podcasters and even performances by dance groups.

"People look at us for that fun, that exploration," said Jennifer Wahlquist, the vice president of USO Global Entertainment. "We follow the data trends and behaviors … what people are streaming and consuming and interested in."

Several people sitting in plush chairs watch the same TV.
TV Talk
Naval Criminal Investigative Service personnel speak with TV actors Vanessa Lachey and Wilmer Valderrama during a USO virtual engagement on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., April 8, 2024. In collaboration with USO Global Engagement, NCIS and personnel from military bases worldwide had the opportunity to learn more about the actors and their commitment to military families.
Photo By: Todd Beveridge, Navy
VIRIN: 240408-N-PV230-1003

The programming includes virtual base visits, engaging live discussions, live performances and one-on-one calls with service members. MVP events also include online workshops, classes, Q&A sessions and digital subscriptions on topics like gaming and those pertaining to military spouses and transitioning service members. Famed financial advisor Suze Orman and entrepreneur Mark Cuban have held sessions to answer finance-related questions.

Wahlquist said the USO held its first MVP session about 10 days after COVID-19 shut down much of the U.S. It was with actor David Boreanaz from the TV show "SEAL Team," and fewer than 10 service members from Al Asad Air Base in Iraq joined. Wahlquist's team wasn't sure what the response to the session would be, but she said they were pleasantly surprised to see that service members and Boreanaz were still able to have strong, impactful interactions.

"We knew we had something right out of the gate," Wahlquist said.

Four screens show three groups of people cooking; the fourth shows just a woman sitting.
Meal Prep
Celebrity chef and TV personality Carla Hall prepares a meal with troops stationed at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, and at USO Indiana during a USO military virtual programming session in March 2022.
Photo By: USO video still
VIRIN: 220325-O-D0439-072

The appeal for service members is that they can actually engage in the conversation.

"We really try to make sure we're matching the conversation to give folks an element of personalization," Wahlquist said. "If all they're doing is passively watching … people question why they should do it in the first place. Like, 'I could watch this on YouTube.'"

She said in those early COVID-19 days, a lot of talent in the entertainment industry reached out to the USO to support service members. "I think we had scheduled probably four or five months out, alone, and we were doing, oh gosh, probably four to five sessions a week," Wahlquist said. "It was a tremendous response."

In MVP's first year, Wahlquist said 115 celebrities took part. That number waned a bit when in-person events resumed, but the momentum hasn't stopped. During 2023, the MVP program held 24 live events viewed by 16,400 live viewers. They included 32 celebrities and had viewership in 25 countries, 27 U.S. states and territories and even a ship at sea, statistics showed. The chat sessions have become more established, too, with some incorporating experienced hosts to moderate and keep the conversations flowing.

Wahlquist said the online aspect is beneficial for both the talent and the service members.

"Everybody likes an opportunity to talk to someone they look up to, that they're entertained by … even if it's via video, I think the surprise and delight factor are still really there," she said. As for the talent, it's much easier to do a 30-minute chat session than plan and prep for an in-person visit. "[Online] is obviously not as time-bound as getting on a plane and going on a tour, so if you really do have an insane schedule — as many folks do that are our guests — this is really just such a light lift."

A man holds a cookie sandwich in one side of a split screen; a woman smiles on the other screen.
Cooking Demo
Celebrity baker Duff Goldman brought the tastes and smells of the holidays to service members in Japan and Colorado during a virtual cooking demonstration hosted by the USO in December 2023.
Photo By: USO video still
VIRIN: 231225-O-D0439-074

The USO finds ways to get those stars with hectic schedules involved. For example, Jennifer Lopez recently did a USO video call. She only had 15 minutes of time to give, so the conversation involved only a small group of service members in Iraq, Kuwait, North Macedonia and Poland who were able to chat more intimately with her.

So, what do they talk about in these sessions? Anything from the guest's latest project to current events and pop culture. The guests are encouraged to ask questions — even mundane ones, such as what a service member's favorite sport is — to help find connections and offer support.

Wahlquist said the programming is especially meaningful to forward deployed service members.

"I think one of the more memorable sessions we had was a direct request from one of the commanders in Iraq. There were, I think, three units of National Guard members from Iowa that were deployed, and he really wanted them to hear from the Iowa State football coach," Wahlquist said. "We set that up, and they had this amazing conversation on a Saturday morning for an hour. [Coach] was just motivating them right along, helping them through this particular period."

Some of the most-requested stars that the military community has asked for include Taylor Swift, The Rock, Ryan Reynolds and Oprah Winfrey.

A man and woman smile on two screens; a group of young children sit together in a third screen.
Month of the Military Child
Jeff Kinney, author of the bestselling children’s book series, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” joined more than 10,000 Department of Defense Education Activity students virtually in celebration of the Month of the Military Child, April 11, 2023.
Photo By: USO video still
VIRIN: 230411-O-D0439-075

Supporting Students

Wahlquist said the USO has built a good working relationship with the Department of Defense Education Activity to host sessions for students that fall into their curriculum paths.

"We had Bill Nye [the Science Guy] join once. [Anthropologist] Dr. Jane Goodall came on, and Jeff Kinney, author of the 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series — that's actually our highest session to date. We had 10,000 elementary and middle schoolers inside their classrooms join live and talk to him," Wahlquist said.

In a recent video call between actor Bill Hader and DODEA school drama students in Japan, Hader talked about his journey from high school to Saturday Night Live. But he also asked the students about their projects, with which he was really impressed.

Two screens show two men smiling and laughing. A third screen shows a classroom full of teenagers.
USO Virtual Programming
Actor, writer and director Bill Hader chats with service members from various military bases, including a high school drama class in Japan, during a USO virtual programming live discussion on March 19, 2024.
Photo By: USO video still
VIRIN: 240319-O-D0439-089

Wahlquist said the feedback they get from MVP event participants gives them an idea of the types of things service members are interested in, which helps inform their in-person programming — and vice versa.

"We also work with our USO centers, as well, to try to build into their existing [in-person] programming," Wahlquist said. One example, she said, was when a center in Southeast Asia mentioned they were having a ladies' spa night. "We brought on [TV personality] Kristin Cavallari, and she talked about beauty, skin care, and foot care and things like that. We try to integrate into what's already happening on the ground."

Viewers can watch programming live or on-demand through Military units at any location can request their own one-on-one sessions through the website.

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