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Thriving in USA’sCharacter-Building Job | @tim_bays

Chris McCumber has taken the reins of television’s top-rated USA Network as president, and he sees it heading in only one direction: Up.

“We have to continue to grow the business,” says McCumber. “You can’t stay No. 1 by standing still.”

It’s only been six weeks since NBCUniversal Cable Group entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer made the decision to give McCumber the sole perch atop the net, but he already feels at home.

“It’s been a real natural progression and transition,” says McCumber, who served the past 2½ years as copresident alongside Jeff Wachtel (who was named president and chief content officer at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment). “I was able to get into the presidency with experience behind me already.”

McCumber also credits his time spent working in the marketing department, seeing as he had to work with every department in that post. “What you find as head of marketing is that you’re dealing with all aspects of the business,” he says.

And Hammer recognized McCumber’s ability as an across-the-board presence. “Chris is as close to USA’s DNA as you can get,” she says. “As president, he’ll continue the leadership that’s played a critical role in USA’s success. The network’s not only about to make history as No. 1 for the eighth-straight year, it’s pacing toward its most profitable year ever.”

And it’s not resting on those laurels. McCumber is overseeing USA as it readies to delve into comedy for the first time; it recently premiered repeat episodes of ABC’s Modern Family, which it will use to launch original comedies next year. “This has been a very strategic move for us. There’s always been a sense of comedy, fun and humor to [our brand],” he says before joking that Psych, the network’s offbeat detective drama, is often referred to as a “comedy with a dead body.”

“We’ve had a lot of success zigging where others are zagging,” he adds.

Some of McCumber’s rise at USA can be attributed to his role in the creation of the net’s “Characters Welcome” branding, the first comprehensive multiplatform identity shift it had in 30 years.

“It always seemed before as a general entertainment network, which meant we really stood for nothing,” he says. “We knew it would be a bad decision for us to just hitch ourselves into one genre or audience.” McCumber recalls when they were conducting audience research, wondering if “USA” was too general of a name. But they found that viewers had a strong emotional tie to it because of what those three letters represent. “USA has always been branded as a place,” he says. “It used to have a flag as a logo.”

McCumber saw an opportunity for the network to establish such characters as Tony Shaloub’s Adrian Monk and Anthony Michael Hall’s Johnny Smith in Dead Zone — unique roles that emphasized the network’s message. “We started to see a through line in creating a network around characters,” he says.

Playing Politics

If it weren’t for a job covering local politics for an Allentown, Pa., TV station, McCumber might have ended up on a different side of the entertainment business. A government and law major at Lafayette College, McCumber thought about becoming an entertainment lawyer. “I always knew I wanted to be somewhere near entertainment,” he says, noting he was the head of his college radio station.

“That was my first real look into television,” he says of the Allentown gig. “I saw how all the different parts are put together.”

McCumber later landed a production assistant gig at MTV, which was starting up the Ha! network; it eventually became Comedy Central. “I was the third employee at Ha! as a production assistant,” he recalls. “I literally got to see a network built from the ground up.”

Prior to joining USA in 2001, McCumber was creative director for the media and entertainment practice at Lee Hunt Associates (it became Razorfish), where he led teams of technologists conceiving brand strategy and creative solutions for TV networks and broadband entertainment services.

“I’ve always been fortunate to have worked at startups…from Comedy Central to Lee Hunt, and at what we called ‘TVs largest startup’ when we relaunched USA,” he says. “My career path has been guided by a passion for building businesses.”

Another of his great passions is music, he says, noting the extensive library of tunes on his iPhone. “I can go from heavy metal to classical in two seconds.”

McCumber enjoys Sundays, when he can cook for his family. “Family for me is No. 1,” he says. His next challenge: oldest daughter Carlie is getting ready to look at colleges.