By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
USA network president Bonnie Hammer said she is excited about her company’s current rebranding effort, which she sees as a way to entice viewers to sample the goods inside the network’s fancy new packaging. “It’s a wrapper that grows out of what we have-the programming,” she said.
What USA has and will now promote with greater effort and clarity are character-based series, which began coming into focus in 2001 when Jeff Wachtel, executive VP for original programming, joined the network. Some critics have been slow to recognize the trend, questioning whether USA’s eclectic mix of shows reflected a clear programming philosophy.
“In a nutshell, yes, we have a clear philosophy,” Mr. Wachtel said. “No, we don’t have a ‘type’ of show in terms of genre.”
Instead, the USA schedule is constructed with four criteria in mind. First, the network is looking for character-based shows.
Second, he said, USA shows should be based on clear and marketable concepts that can be expressed in only a few words. “As with ‘Monk’ you can say, ‘Detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder.'”
The network also wants series that are “unique in the current marketplace,” Mr. Wachtel said, ticking off his third major criterion. “ABC has a great hit with ‘Desperate Housewives,’ and it’s a great show. But we don’t want [sellers] to come to us with the next one. Nor do they have to invent a new genre. Just present something not currently in the TV universe.
“With ‘Monk’ we have a detective series of the sort not on TV since ‘Murder, She Wrote.’ We were interested in ‘The 4400’ because ‘X-Files’ is not on the air, so the audience who wants that kind of show can find it with us.”
Mr. Wachtel said the fourth requirement for USA producers is to deliver programs with production values equal to or higher than those of broadcast network shows. “We want to raise the bar of quality in basic cable,” he said. “In 2001, when we made this part of our platform, the production quality was not equal to broadcast and pay TV. Now not only USA but FX and other basic cable networks have raised that bar.” Suppliers and producers of original series said they are thriving under those guidelines.
“We originally developed ‘The 4400’ for Fox,” said Scott Peters, executive producer of the series now in its second season. “When Fox dropped it, we had offers from three networks and we chose to go to USA. We were attracted by the pitch they gave us about their network-they wanted high-class projects. They were not interested in doing cheap programming.
“It’s been a nice marriage,” he said. “And the programming department there has consistently been helpful.”
“The 4400” has also been a boon to USA. Its first season premiere July 11, 2004 earned a 5.7 household rating and 7.4 million viewers, per Nielsen Media Galaxy Explorer, the highest-rated debut for a series in basic cable history.
The second season of “The 4400” premiered this month with a 4.0 household rating and 5.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
USA’s other original series-including “The Dead Zone,” “Kojak,” “Monk” and the reality-competition show “Nashville Star”-have earned critical praise and, in the case of “Monk,” nominations and awards, including Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and special mention by the Television Critics Association.
The network has boasted several successful series in the past as well. In 1991 it premiered “Silk Stalkings” through a unique arrangement with CBS whereby the broadcast network would run the show as part of its “Crimetime After Primetime” late-night programming hour, and USA would then run it in prime time. CBS backed out in 1993, but USA continued to license original episodes until 1999.
Other original series in USA’s past include “Pacific Blue,” which ran from 1996 to 2000, and “La Femme Nikita” based on the French film of the same name. USA ran 96 original episodes of “Nikita” from 1997 to 2001.
In 1992 USA plunged into the television movie business, ordering 24 original two-hour movies, an effort that continued for several seasons but has now been abandoned.
“We found with one-shot TV movies the investment wasn’t productive,” Ms. Hammer said. “The cost is high both for production and marketing, and they don’t repeat well. We now are going for limited series, projects that if they work we can continue with as weekly series. That’s how we launched ‘The 4400’ last year, with eight episodes.”
Episode orders vary. “Monk” produced 13 new hours for this year, “The 4400” 16.
Mr. Wachtel said that 10 percent of USA’s current prime-time programming is original, paid for with 25 percent of the overall programming budget. The bulk of programming and spending is still for acquired movies and off-network series.
Sports remains a key component in the programming picture as well, particularly USA Open Tennis and PGA Golf. “We consider ourselves a general entertainment network,” Ms. Hammer said. “Sports is part of that. It’s a matter of balance.”
Additionally, WWE Wrestling will return to USA’s prime-time lineup this fall. Professional wrestling was a regular prime-time offering for USA in the 1990s.
USA will also debut a new reality series, “Made in the USA” in late summer. The series, executive produced by Ken Mok (“America’s Next Top Model”), will feature Americans competing to present the best products and inventions, with the winners getting a chance to sell their wares on the Home Shopping Network.
Currently, USA runs “The 4400” and “The Dead Zone” on Sunday nights and “Monk” on Fridays. While Mr. Wachtel said he does not see expanding to other nights in the immediate future, the network is looking for a companion series to run on Fridays with “Monk.”