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Off-Net Shows Are USA's Secret Weapon

While its original series like Burn Notice and Royal Pains get most of the attention, a big reason for USA Network's standing as the highest rated network in cable is the performance of its acquired series.

As USA gets ready for an upfront presentation in New York Monday that will be studded by such stars as Matt Bomer of White Collar and Piper Perabo of Covert Affairs, the network has also invited some of the stars of its high-rated off-net series to remind buyers of this important part of the network's schedule.

"Acquisitions always have been and always will be an integral part of our success," says Jane Blaney, executive VP of programming, acquisitions and scheduling at USA.

No cable entertainment network can fill primetime, let alone a 24-7 schedule with original shows, so re-runs are part of the mix. Thanks to Blaney's selections, headed by NCIS, Law & Order: SVU and CSI, USA gets the highest ratings in cable for its acquired series. And while buyers pay higher prices for originals on a cost-per-thousand viewers basis, acquired shows generate valuable impressions for advertisers, in primetime, fringe and on weekends."There's a huge amount of revenue in those dayparts," Blaney says.

"Certainly originals can and should get a premium," she says, adding that "at the end of the day, the better the rating, the more hot they are to buy the show."

Todd Gordon, senior VP, managing director, national broadcast at Initiative, says that cable networks have been stepping up the number of original hours they air. "But it's still expensive to do and there's only so much of that you can fill a schedule with. They have a whole day to schedule every single day and acquired series and movies are the core of that and provide the lead ins to the originals," he said.

"From an advertiser perspective, when you're buying a network, you're typically buying a mix of a lot of the different stuff that they have," Gordon says. "The originals are the best part of the plan, but if the rest of the schedule has nothing then it makes it really hard to do business with them. It forces them to price the originals in a different ways. I think both things are really important."

Buying off-net shows also reduces some of the risk advertisers take on original programming. "With an original series you're looking at a pilot at best and there's always some risk of a show not finding an audience," he said. "With acquired series you know what you're getting."

In picking shows, USA uses the same well-known brand filter for acquisitions as it does when green-lighting original shows. "We want to make sure that we acquire character-centric shows that fit through that brand filter," Blaney says. "Certainly all the shows that we are airing right now we feel do have recognizable characters."

Blaney says that off-net series are great investment. "When you look at the margins that are there for a show that you can repeat over and over and over again for multiple years like an NCIS and SVU," she says, "certainly those off-network series are going to be your most profitable investment."

USA is counting on its success continuing with acquired shows continuing. It paid a reported $2.3 million an episode for NCIS:LA, which will be on the network in full force in fall 2013 (the network can air the show out of primetime once a week starting this fall), and Modern Family, which cost $1.5 million per episode and will arrive in 2013.

"Will they be hot? Will they be repeatable? Will they be yesterday's news? We think that we bought, with Modern Family the best sitcom for the future, the hottest show on TV right now on broadcast television," Blaney said. "And NCIS LA is a proven commodity and the success of NCIS on USA has been probably the best off network series in history."

USA will be able to run NCIS and NCIS:LA back to back, if it chooses. They seem to work well together on CBS now, said Ted Linhart, USA VP of program research. "If you look at the performance on CBS and how they pair up, NCIS:LA has more competition. It would suggest that the audience is equally passionate to find them."

Modern Family would put USA in the comedy business. The network is also developing some original comedies. "That brings with it a whole new world for us," Blaney said. "Certainly we've always looked at getting into that world. It's a hard world to enter because you open the appetite up for these half hours."

Comedies would have USA access to new viewers as well. "It's a different type of viewer," said Linhart. "Modern Family in particular is nice and young and has a very buzzy appeal. It's exciting to get something so big and different, and yet it fits in. It's like the perfect combination."

Of course, the entire off network world is looking at the effects of new forms of distribution. While the studios figure out the best way to monetize their shows, Blaney says "certain exclusivity including limited digital exposure will continue to be a key ingredient in our acquisitions strategy."