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USA Sets Aggressive Pace for Q1

Jan 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As it looks ahead to being swallowed by NBC, USA Network is putting its most aggressive slate of original programming on the air in the first quarter.
Despite being one of the first cable networks to offer original programming, USA has long been seen as a big but nondescript channel, overstocked with tired reruns and second-rate movies. In 2001, when the advertising economy cratered, the network had to cut rates to get sponsors to buy commercials.
Now the network appears to have bounced back from the abyss. The original series “Monk” has gained attention, winning an Emmy for actor Tony Shalhoub and last month racking up three Golden Globe nominations. USA’s “The Dead Zone” has also been successful. At the same time, the acquisition of “Law & Order SVU” has brought viewers back to prime time in significant numbers.
And in the first quarter, “We’re really going to come out of the barn storming and make a big impact,” said Doug Herzog, president of USA Network.
Highlights of the first quarter include:
* Seven new episodes of “Monk” starting Jan. 16, including one featuring the obsessive-compulsive detective’s weirder older brother, played by John Turturro.
* The miniseries “Traffic,” which will appear two hours per night over three consecutive nights beginning Jan. 26.
* The original movie “The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story,” in which Dean Cain plays Scott Peterson, premiering Feb. 13.
* The launch of “Touching Evil,” based on the British series of the same name. It stars Jeffrey Donovan as a detective who sees things differently after having a near-death experience.
* The second installment of “Nashville Star,” the country cousin of “American Idol.”
* Another original movie, “Going Down: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss,” starring Jamie-Lynn DiScala (Meadow Soprano of “The Sopranos”) March 29.
Mr. Herzog said viewers will get an eyeful of the direction in which the channel is trying to move. When it was being developed, “Monk,” he said, might have been too “quirky” for the old USA. Instead, it turned out to be the biggest show ever on the network. But “Touching Evil” and “Traffic” are “the next step, a step to get a little more daring, to try to do some things that have never been done before, a little riskier in our presentation,” he said. “I think we’ve got to be contemporary, exciting, take risks, be groundbreaking, because clearly in this television environment, that’s what the viewer demands. And the same old same old is kind of dead.”
But not too forward or exciting. Too much of a focus on crime and sex can scare away advertisers, even if it does attract attention.
“We’re not going to try to be FX. They’re doing a very particular thing. They have done it incredibly well. But they have moved the bar in terms of what everybody can do out there,” Mr. Herzog said. “Our future we believe lies more in the `Monks’ and things like `Touching Evil,’ vs. `Peacemakers.”’
“Peacemakers” appeared over the summer and was canceled. The good news about `Peacemakers’ is we did pretty well with it and there’s clearly an appetite for a Western,” Mr. Herzog said. “But I think what we didn’t accomplish with `Peacemakers’ is putting a great contemporary spin on it. I think we want to be seen as contemporary and forward-leaning.”
With “Law & Order: SVU” making huge improvements in key time slots, USA had its highest-rated fourth quarter since 1999.
Madison Avenue is noticing.
“In first quarter they’re hoping to see a bump,” said Ed Gentner, senior VP, group director, national broadcast, MediaVest. “What they’re trying to do is get an identity with their original programming and try to sustain the rating success that they’ve had with the `Law & Order’ franchise.”
USA has done a good job of gradually adding original shows to its programming mix. “They’ve been smart with what they’ve introduced, and I think that could be seen with the success of a `Monk’ and a `Dead Zone,”’ Mr. Gentner said.
Since original programs tend to command higher prices from advertisers, USA has been getting better rates. “They have gotten to a point where they’re really moving with the marketplace,” Mr. Gentner said.
If the first programming clicks, USA will be in a good position when the next upfront rolls around, said Jeff Lucas, head of ad sales for USA’s parent, Universal Television.
“These guys have proven they can make good programming,” Mr. Lucas said. “`Traffic’ can play on any network. We have good stuff. It’s just a matter of letting people know it and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.
“What these shows in first quarter are going to do is garner big numbers, and they’re quality productions with good talent and they’ll put us into great position going into the upfront.”
NBC, which is expected to complete the acquisition of Vivendi-Universal, including its cable networks, by the end of the first quarter, may notice too, but that’s not why so much original material is appearing now.
“Certainly you want to look good for the new guy,” Mr. Herzog said. While nothing has been said officially, Mr. Herzog said he has sensed that things won’t change dramatically in terms of the network’s direction after the merger is completed.
Certainly, he said, he expects to be there. “I haven’t seen any indications otherwise,” he said, adding that he thinks that NBC, with its broad promotional platforms, will help USA’s new shows take off. “We feel pretty bullish about the future,” he said.