In a world of copycat TV programming, Stephen Chao is a
maverick who thinks outside of the box and who's not afraid to take risks that raise
eyebrows -- industry observers all agreed on that.
But while Chao's admirers said he's the perfect
executive to forge an identity for USA Network, where he's the new president of
programming and marketing, his detractors worried that Chao -- who created so-called
tabloid TV -- will use sensational programming, targeted at the lowest common denominator
of the audience, to create a buzz about USA
The man who was Barry Diller's hand-picked choice and
who helped to craft the Fox Network's edgy persona said last week that he
doesn't have a game plan yet, other than to create programming "that will offer
original voices, fresh voices for the viewer."
Chao, who spent time in USA's New York headquarters
last week, has his work cut out for him: sharpening USA's focus. In a Solomon-like
act, USA Networks Inc. chairman Barry Diller last week created a co-presidency at the
company's cable networks, USA and Sci-Fi Channel. He named Chao, whom he worked with
at Fox, to his new title. And in a bid to maintain a sense of continuity and internal
goodwill, he promoted 16-year USA veteran Stephen Brenner to the slot of president of
operations, overseeing ad sales, affiliate relations, finance and administration.
Chao noted that Diller was known for encouraging
"I don't have an agenda coming in," he said.
"I hope to have one in a month. I just have to see what's there -- go from the
basement to the top to see what's in inventory. But I see the beginning of some very
interesting movement at USA, with shows like La Femme Nikita."
Essentially, Chao and Brenner will be assuming the duties
of Kay Koplovitz, the outgoing founder and chairman of USA Networks, who will leave in
June. The heads of programming at USA and Sci-Fi -- Rod Perth and Barry Schulman,
respectively -- as well as senior vice president of marketing Andy Besch will now report
to Chao, who was fired in 1992 by then-boss Rupert Murdoch for having a male stripper
perform at a News Corp. presentation.
Last week, at a press briefing in New York, Koplovitz and
Brenner insisted that it will take some time -- at least a year -- for Chao, who created
such reality-based shows as America's Most Wanted, Cops and Studs,
to make his mark on USA's program schedule.
Brenner pointed out that USA, which is repositioning to
target the younger, 18- to 49-year-old demographic, has programming commitments in place
than span several years.
"You can't just flip a switch and change the bulk
of your programming," Brenner said. "We're pretty well-set ... I don't
think that you'll see a radically different USA Network."
When asked if USA's programming will undergo an
"evolution or revolution" under his tenure, Chao said, "I hope that
there's no revolution."
Chao said he has asked both Perth and Besch to stay on.
"I'm considering every option and trying to be thoughtful and, at the same time,
supportive of the priorities that we have in front of us," Perth said.
Chao, who has led his own production company, Stephen Chao
Inc., since 1993, has vehement fans.
"He's unconventional, but there's a method
to his madness," said Mark Itkin, senior vice president at William Morris Agency.
"He'll create signature shows to create an identity for USA."
Brian Graden, executive vice president of programming at
MTV: Music Television, worked for Chao, a fellow Harvard MBA, at Fox in the 1980s.
"He was my No. 1 mentor and my first boss,"
Graden said. "I thrived under him. He's attracted to big lightning-rod ideas
that represent true innovation."
Graden predicted that Chao will "make adventurous
[programming] choices to help brand the network [USA], and not just to get ratings."
But some industry observers wondered how far Chao will push
the envelope at USA.
TV Guide television critic Matt Roush had some qualms
about how far Chao and Diller will go "to make noise" for USA.
"Will USA become the Fox network of cable?" Roush
Chao denied that he plans to repeat his Fox strategy at
"It would not interest me to do the same thing,"
he said. "I don't want to do another Cops or America's Most
Wanted, not in a million years. I'd rather become a Buddhist monk in Tibet."
Cable operators are waiting to see what happens.
"One of the challenges with USA Network is that it has
an amorphous image in the market," said Jerry McKenna, Cable One's vice
president of strategic marketing. "My concern is that normally, when a lot of money
is spent on original programming, operators are getting forced to pay significant rate
increases. I hope that Chao can create a clear image for the network and do it at a
For her part, Koplovitz said, she would consider taking a
job outside of cable, but she would want an equity stake in whatever company she went to.
"I've gotten hundreds of calls from people with
opportunities and investments," she said.
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