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Evil Descends on USA

Crime. Punishment. And a sexy new star. But don't look to the broadcast nets for this hunka hunka burning bad. It's a cable exclusive. Touching Evil, a remake of a British crime thriller executive-produced by action star Bruce Willis and his partner Arnold Rifkin, lights up USA Network on March 12.

The timing couldn't be better. Things haven't looked good for USA since the World Wrestling Entertainment defected to Spike TV (then TNN) in 2000, taking a sizable chunk of the net's ratings with it. Touching Evil
debuts on the heels of the third season of Monk, USA's wildly popular (at least by cable standards) detective comedy. And the off-net addition of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit gives USA a steady anchor in prime time.

"This completes our turnaround story," says General Manager Michele Ganeless. "We finally did it."

USA nabbed an average 2.45 million viewers in prime for February, up a hearty 24% from a year ago. That was second only to TNT, which attracted 2.53 million viewers. In January, USA pulled off a rare ratings coup, ranking as the most watched cable network.

Of course, in wrestling's heyday, USA boasted more viewers. Now original shows and a fresh acquisition are the drivers.

"They made it back," says Carat USA media buyer Andy Donchin. "Monk
is one of the highest-rated cable shows, and the development slate is good. USA is a good place [for advertisers] to be."

Going forward, it's up to Ganeless and original programming chief Jeff Wachtel to steer USA. With NBC's pending acquisition of parent Vivendi Universal Entertainment, network chief Doug Herzog exits this spring to head Comedy Central. NBC won't talk about its designs for the cable net, but industry executives say synergy is the watchword. They expect to see NBC shows rerun on USA, and the networks teaming up on movie packages and sports.

NBC did, however, provide a rare window into its plans last week, announcing that USA will air some U.S. Olympic trials this summer—if the acquisition goes through. NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol also said some Olympics action might air on USA.

For now, USA is focused on original shows. Touching Evil is a break from past efforts. It is edgier and sexier than Monk or canceled Western Peacemakers and should appeal to younger viewers. And, unlike Monk, which stars veteran Tony Shaloub, Touching Evil is banking on an unknown, actor Jeffrey Donovan. But it does have Willis, who is expected to plug his baby on Leno and Letterman.

Evil fits neatly into the USA canon. One hallmark of all its shows, including psychic thriller Dead Zone, is "a damaged hero," says Wachtel. In Touching Evil, Donovan's character rejoins an elite FBI unit after a near fatal gunshot wound.

Following the two-hour series premiere will be 12 hourlong episodes. At roughly $1.5 million per episode, Touching Evil
is markedly cheaper than a broadcast drama.

Its price tag is part of USA's economic philosophy: Never waste. To offset development costs, USA makes two-hour drama pilots that can air as movies if they don't make the series cut. For example, martial-arts drama pilot Red Sky,
which didn't pan out as a series, recently aired as a movie.

Another bottom-line tactic is limited series. 4400, about 4,400 people who are missing and believed dead but return to Earth, and Dean Koontz's Frankenstein, a modern take on the horror classic, are in development.

Look for USA to keep a hand in acquisitions, too. "Another strip would give us a boost in prime or a way to solidify early fringe," says Ganeless. USA seems a logical cable home for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, produced in association with Universal Television and airing on NBC. The net could also be a player for the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced drama Cold Case.
Recent successes are emboldening USA to take a swipe at the big boys—just in time for the upfront.

"We are an alternative to broadcast," says Ganeless, "and we have a lot of fantastic pieces."