Herzog heads home

Different network, same question.

Can Doug Herzog do conventional television?

As Herzog makes a surprise move to take charge of USA Network, he faces an issue that surrounded him when he first took his last job, president of Fox Network, on the big broadcasting side of the business. Certainly Herzog can create certain kinds of hit shows on the cheap for cable networks ecstatic to get a 1.0 Nielsen rating.

Herzog proved that as president of Comedy Central, where he landed South Park, and as head of programming for MTV, where he virtually birthed reality TV with The Real World.

But Herzog's new position at USA Network calls for him to develop conventional sitcoms, hour-long action shows and movies for a broad entertainment audience.

Despite a lengthy career in television, he has developed those kinds of shows only at Fox Network, a job so ugly that, at the end, he was fighting as hard to get out of his contract as Fox brass was angling to oust him.

"Doug knows his audiences, but a year at Fox didn't make him a Hollywood television executive," said one former colleague.

USA Cable President Stephen Chao disagrees. "I wouldn't say he has limited experience," Chao said, pointing to the Herzog-developed Fox show Malcolm in the Middle as "the only successful sitcom of the past couple of years." But he acknowledged that "development is one of those processes that is arduous."

Herzog said he's perfectly comfortable in that programming groove, emphasizing that he's not taking USA in a dramatically new direction or into a narrower demo. "I see the opportunity to take a very big network, a very broad network, take it to the next level. It's strong and healthy but needs to re-establish itself."

Aside from the WWF, which it lost to TNN, USA Network has been unable to develop successful series.

In his three years at the network, Chao has tried numerous properties, such as Cover Me;The War Next Door; and Manhattan, AZ,
but only the mom-and-daughter bounty-hunter show, The Huntress, is working.

The network has been ticking up in the post-WWF ratings, particularly in February, but that's largely on the strength of events like miniseries Attila, not its steady programming menu of off-broadcast acquired series, original series and theatrical movies.

"What they don't have to their credit, to date, is a stone-cold cable-series hit," Herzog said. "Their competition hasn't either. TBS, TNT, FX have nothing. The guys who have succeeded are the niche guys."

Industry executives had been buzzing in recent weeks that Chao might be out of the company entirely, but USA Networks executives insist that Herzog's move solidifies Chao's position as chairman of USA Cable and all of its divisions. Said one USA Networks executive, "This is not any change in Chao's status, which has been as hands-on as he needs to be."