By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Twenty-five years ago the USA Network was born as basic cable’s first general entertainment channel. Upon reaching its silver anniversary, it is one of cable’s busiest destinations and is celebrating its first year as part of the NBC Universal tree of networks.
USA is marking the dual anniversaries by sprucing up its look with a major rebranding effort.
“We’re going to enhance our marketing, our logo, our brand,” said Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel. “I say ‘enhance’ rather than ‘change’ because we’re lucky-we’re starting from a place of success. We’re going to enhance that success.”
“When the USA Network became part of the NBC family, we all thought we were acquiring a fantastic first-rate, terrific network,” said NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker. “It’s an incredibly important piece of our portfolio, and one that takes on a new look, already having great audience appeal.”
Currently USA is the No. 2 cable network overall with, an average 1.9 household rating and 2.1 million viewers in 2005 to date, according to Nielsen Media Research.
“USA is one of the best channels in overall ratings and overall profits,” said Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal cable entertainment and cross-network strategy. “USA is probably more profitable than some of the broadcast networks.”
David Zaslav, president of NBC Universal Cable, explained why: “Because USA is either the No. 1 or No. 2 cable network, depending on the market, the carriage fee is significant,” he said. “No matter how many stations are out there, people still watch only eight, 10, 14. USA is among the top five in viewer choices.”
The “enhanced” USA, which weeks ago began slowly unveiling elements of its new marketing campaign and logo, will build on a recent upswing from original series such as “The 4400,” “Monk” and others, using those character-based shows as a springboard.
“We took a look at what’s at the heart of what we do,” Ms. Hammer said. “And it was characters. That can mean Tony Shalhoub as Monk or Ving Rhames as Kojak. It’s relevant to our sports programming too-the Williams sisters in our tennis coverage.
“When you see a billboard or our new logo, you’ll know it’s USA,” she said. “We’ll be fresher, more relevant, a little hipper. We will be a network the audience sees as offering shows with an air of blue skies, optimism. A network with a viewpoint about it.”
Throughout its history, USA’s programming blend of sports, original dramas and acquired movies and series-currently including “JAG,” “Nash Bridges,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “The District”-has been appreciated for its diversity by some industry observers, while others rapped it for lacking a clear-cut identity.
“USA has always been very generic, which worked for them when there were very few cable channels,” said Carolyn Finger, VP of TVtracker.com, a service that researches all things TV.
“What we may be seeing now is a long-awaited brand change,” she said. “They now have solid originals. What they need to do is make the audience aware of the network so that people are not saying, ‘Let’s watch “Monk,”‘ but ‘Let’s watch USA.'”
When NBC and its parent, General Electric, took over the Vivendi Universal assets in 2004, they did more than just place USA and the Sci Fi Channel under the aegis of Mr. Zucker.
“The leverage of the NBC network is key to the growth of USA,” Mr. Gaspin said. “You’ll not only see promotion of the USA series and specials on NBC, but NBC was essential in bringing the successful WWE professional wrestling franchise back to USA later this year. We were able to meet with the WWE and put on the table a dollar value to the marketing, as well as make at least one Saturday night WWE special on NBC part of the deal.”
“The NBC connection has been a benefit,” said Maira Suro, executive producer of “The 4400,” USA’s top-rated original series. “You’ll see promos for our show on NBC. Plus, they ran the first season of the show on Sci Fi in February. Altogether, it brings more eyeballs to the show, which is what a producer wants. We’re thrilled.”
Ms. Hammer added, “NBC is also giving support in terms of development. We can take a look at what they’ve got but may not be picking up. Plus, there’s crossover. You saw that with the Olympics coverage, where USA could show much of what the American teams were doing, while the final competitions were on NBC.”
“We’re coming up with a new business model for USA and all our cable assets,” Mr. Zaslav said. “With the popularity of several of the USA series and other programming such as the Olympics, you’ll see [video-on-demand] and other delivery means as part of that, but USA will remain what it is-a cable network that the public watches and wants.”
Founded: April 9, 1980; progenitor MSG Network launched in 1977
Owned by: NBC Universal (General Electric majority corporate parent)
Headed by: Bonnie Hammer, president, USA Network and Sci Fi Channel
Number of subscribers: 89 million
Reach: 82 percent of U.S. households
Highest-rated regular program: “The 4400,” which attracted 5.3 million viewers for the premiere of its second season June 5, 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research