Challenges Welcome

USA Network finished 2012 as the most watched ad-supported entertainment network for the seventh consecutive year. So why are its two co-presidents looking to change the programming mix?

The network is altering its successful, highly rated formula of blue sky/inspirational one-hour procedural drama series like Psych, Burn Notice, Necessary Roughness and Royal Pains by adding edgier serial dramas. Graceland, which follows the lives of gritty world of undercover agents whose lives collide in an undercover beach house, is a recognition of the change in viewer tastes from selfcontained procedural dramas that dominated TV a decade ago to the serialized, storyline-driven dramas like AMC’s The Walking Dead and Showtime’s Homeland that appeal to viewers today.

USA will supplement its drama series with its first stab at original half-hour comedies — including Paging Dr. Freed, about two brothers who take over the family medical practice, and the Denis Leary-produced, EMT-themed series Sirens — as well as the acquisition of the popular ABC series ModernFamily.

The “Characters Welcome” channel will also take a swing at the reality series genre in 2013 with such shows as The Moment, which offers regular people a chance to live their dream career, and The Choir, which looks to reinvigorate struggling communities by assembling a local choir.

The moves are part of USA’s strategy of challenging itself to keep its competitive edge in a crowded cable environment while drawing in more viewers. Despite its 2012 ratings win, the network posted a 10% decline in year-to-year viewership.

USA Network co-presidents Chris McCumber and Jeff Wachtel recently outlined the network’s programming plans to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead. The executives admit risk in changing the network’s successful programming formula, but are confident that the end result will be an unprecedented eighth straight yearly ratings win. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: What has been the secret of USA Network’s success year after year?

Chris McCumber: I don’t think it’s any one thing. First, I think we have the best team in the business. I also think there is a real consistency and a real symbiotic relationship between the original series, the acquired content and WWE. All three of those pieces have different strengths and they can play off of each other — that’s what keeps our momentum. We had a great fourth quarter in 2012. We saw a surge in the acquired series that we hadn’t seen before and that gives us momentum coming into 2013 where we’re launching a number of our series.

Jeff Wachtel: We always keep pushing ourselves. Chris and I are basically producers and we know that you have to keep pushing and forcing yourself and if you don’t, you’re going to get overtaken by someone else. So it’s very important for us to keep challenging ourselves — it can be a little scary and a little risky, but if you don’t do it all is lost.

MCN: Talk about being scary and risky: You’re moving into the reality series genre later this year. How risky is that given that your audience has been conditioned to tune into USA for scripted content?

CM: The thing about reality that’s interesting is because it’s less expensive per episode, you can take more risks. What we find fun about reality is an idea will come in and we’ll say, “that’s fun, let’s do it,” and we can do it. That’s what reality brings — we’ve seen other networks have a lot of success putting shows on the air just to try it out. Once it starts to work, then they get behind it, and we’re going to learn that process. For us, I think that’s really exciting.

MCN: It also seems that you’re taking more of a risk on the scripted side as well. Graceland is a little dark and edgy — not the kind of blue sky-type shows that we’ve seen from USA. Is that where you’re looking to take the network with future original content?

JW: It’s all organic and evolving. You can’t do anything revolutionary, especially when things are working as well as they are. We want to take it to an edgy place and we want to do more serialized storytelling. We need to bring people into the moment — there are so many choices and so many platforms right now, so unless you have something special and something that’s a continuing storyline, people might drift away.

That’s actually very different than when we started off 10 years ago when everything was self-contained and procedural, where we had to wrap it up in one hour — that was the cable formula. That’s actually the cable anti-formula now, and we realize you have to play it out over time.

CM: As you’ve seen, we’ve built such a strong brand, so what we need to do is not make a 180, what we need to do is move the brand forward and advance the brand. A show like Suits, for example, is a lot more serialized than what we did before. If we did that show five years ago, it would be the case of the week. Now the case of the week is the third story — it’s more about the relationships.

I think with Graceland, you’ll see the same thing. Even though it does go to some darker places, they still come back to the family of Graceland.

MCN: Despite being number one for seven years in a row, USA is still using While USA won the 2012 cable ratings race, the network’s year-to-year viewership was down 10%. Did that drive these changes?

JW and CM [in an email response to a followup question]: Based on [live-plus-7-day ratings], VOD, Hulu, etc., more people are watching our originals than ever. Most of the ratings decline is due to a pipeline filled with some aging acquired series — Law & Order: SVU and NCIS — that will be replenished in the fall with Modern Family and NCIS: Los Angeles. That said, we had decided more than two years ago to push out on our original programming portfolio. It was actually based on the success of our one-hours that motivated us to move into this new space, where we’ve been looking to expand our reach.

MCN: Given the changes, do you expect USA Network to continue its yearly ratings streak, or this a rebuilding year?

CM: We’re going to do everything we can not to let that go. It’s a great place to be and we don’t want to give that up. JW: We believe that we’ve won the World Series seven times in a row and we plan to win it eight times in a row. We also know that, as Chris said, the brand that we put out there is as important as anything we put out there. What really matters is that when people come home, we’re one of the top two or three choices they have. When they turn on the TV or whatever platform they’re engaged in, we want them to come to USA for that storytelling.

MCN: What are some of the other challenges that USA and the industry face going into 2013?

CM: The changing nature of how people are watching television right now. I think people have adopted new platforms and new behaviors quicker than anyone expected. The whole idea of binge viewing, for example, is a phenomenon that has only happened recently — last year no one was talking about it. That said, you can take advantage of those behaviors.

For example, binge viewing has become an entire campaign for us in order to get people to watch Suits in January we put up all the episodes in VOD and did a campaign that said over the holidays watch everything — binge view, catch up and learn about the show. It’s more about showing rather than telling and we want people to get more familiar with the show.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.