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As 'Royal' Gives Way to 'Robot,' USA Eyes New Skies

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The skies have gotten considerably darker at USA Network, but sometimes that’s a good thing. The NBCUniversal cable channel built its brand on “blue-sky” originals—sunny locales with main characters, flawed as they may be, trying to do right. But as Royal Pains concluded its eighth and final season and a new season of moody Mr. Robot starts July 13, USA has essentially closed the blue-sky book.

Jeff Wachtel, chief content officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, and president, Universal Cable Productions (UCP) and Wilshire Studios, calls it a “new phase” at USA and UCP—bigger budgets, more bingeable shows and an increased focus on how a series plays overseas.

Upcoming UCP premieres on USA include a fresh season of Suits on July 13 and new drama Shooter July 19, while season 2 of the Amy Poehler-produced Difficult People airs on Hulu July 12. Richard Rothstein, executive VP/head of current programming at Universal Cable Productions, has seen the darkening of the skies up close. “We always challenge ourselves to find the next thing,” Rothstein says, “and figure out where we’re going next.”

Mr. Robot was an unlikely hit, with an untested showrunner in Sam Esmail and a network not known for gloomy storytelling. Yet the show, about an introverted computer whiz working with a vigilante hacker collective, earned a Golden Globes for best drama and ranks high atop most critics’ you-need-to-see-this lists. UCP brass say Mr. Robot’s success centers on one core principle: Find talent with a big vision and distinctive voice and let them flourish without a lot of meddling. “We put our faith in artists with a very independent vision,” Wachtel says. “We invest them with the authority to make the shows they want to make.”

Royal Pains, which has averaged 2.6 million viewers this season, reached 100 episodes last month. Wachtel acknowledges that the milestone, once the promised land for off-network riches, isn’t what it used to be in a world where SVOD players will acquire rights to a series with a much slimmer library. As a result, he says, series play to their natural conclusions, driven by story lines instead of syndication-minded finish lines.

Royal Pains represents both the old USA philosophy and the new—a main character with layers of do-gooder and demons and a visually appealing locale in Long Island’s Hamptons. Rothstein describes it as a “beach novel told on screen.” Blue sky isn’t necessarily dead within UCP. Rothstein notes that viewers seeking that lighter touch can find it elsewhere in NBCU’s cable stable with shows including The Royals on E! and Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce on Bravo.

Mr. Robot averaged 2.74 million viewers last season—hardly a Walking Dead number, but an encouraging foundation. Wachtel and Rothstein acknowledge the weight of expectations on season 2 but are eager to give it a go. Whatever happens this summer, the show has made its mark at USA and UCP. “It’s really opened us up to a lot of other talent out there,” says Rothstein, mentioning projects from Gale Anne Hurd and Ben Affleck/Matt Damon. “Opportunities have presented themselves, and that’s exciting.”