USA: 25 Years: Channel Changed the TV Business

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

It began in small quarters in Oakland, N.J., moving then to a bank building in the equally sleepy, mostly suburban residential New Jersey community of Glen Rock. All along, USA Network was creating new models for TV, said its founder and first president, Kay Koplovitz.

“We were rewriting the television business in a way it had never been done before,” she said. “The broadcast networks paid affiliates to air their shows. We were asking cable systems to pay us for the shows.”

Ms. Koplovitz said the systems badly needed fresh programming to survive and they quickly understood the economic realities involved. When Robert Rosencrans, then head of UA-Columbia Cablevision, which owned MSG, as USA was then known, came calling with a schedule boasting 125 sporting events, including New York Knicks and New York Rangers games, the multiple system operators ponied up.

A mostly forgotten bit of trivia is that the “USA” in the network’s name actually was incorporated as United Satellite Affiliates in April 1980, though Ms. Koplovitz said, “I don’t think that was ever formally used in discourse.”

“It was very mom-and-pop back then, very small,” said Jane Blaney, USA’s senior VP of programming, who has spent her entire career with the network, beginning as an executive assistant in the fledgling ad sales department in August 1980.

“We were a lot of young people, many of us just out of school,” Ms. Blaney said. “We were working crazy hours to get this network going. There wasn’t even a programming department in 1980. That didn’t happen until 1982, when David Kenin [now executive VP of programming for the Hallmark Channel] came in.”

With the acquisition of USA by the triumvirate of MCA, Paramount and Time Inc. in 1981, the notion of expanding from mostly sports to a fuller blend of entertainment programming rose to the forefront. Once again, the network’s executives found themselves in uncharted waters.

“The studios had a more ebullient point of view, but even here it was hard to do,” Ms. Koplovitz said. “No one had anticipated cable TV, so there were no provisions in the contracts and labor agreements as to how programs could be licensed. For that reason, shows such as ‘Dragnet’ were among the first we were able to buy, because they were long out of production and were not in syndication.”

USA moved to 1230 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan in 1985, occupying, at first, only the 19th floor of the building. That was also the year USA took the plunge more directly into original first-run programming, licensing a Toronto-produced series called “Check It Out,” a supermarket-based sitcom starring Don Adams and featuring Gordon Clapp, who later rose to prominence as “NYPD Blue’s” Det. Medavoy.

The network also began offering programs for daytime, including “Alive and Well,” a talk show hosted by Joanne Carson that was produced through sponsor Bristol-Myers. In late afternoons, there was “Dance Party USA,” an “American Bandstand” rival best known today for giving a TV start to the career of Kelly Ripa, one of the show’s gyrating teens.

“I think rather early on there was a realization that what would work best were one-hour self-contained procedural crime dramas,” Ms. Blaney said. “That’s still true in terms of what we acquire. Back in the late ’80s one of our first purchases was ‘Riptide’ and [in 1987] we produced original episodes of ‘AirWolf’ with a different cast than from the broadcast network run.”

In the late ’80s the off-network syndication market for one-hour dramas went soft, allowing USA to pick up “Miami Vice” in 1987 and “Murder, She Wrote” in 1988 for fees not much higher than $100,000 per episode.

USA committed $250 million for the exclusive acquisition of programming, both original and library. This was a hefty figure for cable at the time, and it was augmented by an additional $50 million set aside for marketing.

The network announced it would produce 24 original TV movies, a plan that soon reaped rewards. According to the Nielsen Micronode Tracking System, in January 1990 USA received an 8.4 rating and 13.5 share for one such telefilm, “The China Lake Murders.”

By January 1991 USA was the top-rated basic cable network, a position it held for six consecutive years, thanks to the original movies and its commitment to original programming, including such efforts as the one-hour drama “Silk Stalkings.”

USA increased its reach by launching the Sci Fi Channel in 1992 and by creating USA Pictures in 1993 to distribute original movies on the network domestically and in theaters internationally. It also launched several international networks, particularly in South America, entities that have since, through ownership changes, been absorbed into other companies.

When Seagrams bought MCA in 1995 USA was part of the acquisition. Then Barry Diller’s HSNi stepped in to assume ownership before selling to Vivendi Universal. Ms. Koplovitz, who had built the network from the ground up and guided it through all its incarnations, left in 1998.

“There were management changes in all the top positions,” Ms. Blaney said. “There was a sense that the network wanted to be younger and edgier, but there was not the investment in original programming.”

NBC’s acquisition of Vivendi Universal’s assets in 2004 changed that and gave USA another new address-30 Rockefeller Center, the famed “30 Rock,” where NBC’s corporate offices are located. Observers both inside and outside the company have predicted strong growth and stability would result from the NBC Universal merger.

“To be successful you have to invest in programming,” Ms. Blaney said. “NBC shares that philosophy.”