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Top-Rated USA Looks Beyond Dramatic Success

USA Network, which secured its spot at the top of the cable charts by honing its quirky drama brand (Monk, Burn Notice, White Collar, Royal Pains), is now making bids that could have the NBC Universal-owned service look even less like its niche-dominated cable competition and more like traditional broadcast networks.

With its preemptive deal for the off-network run of ABC’s Modern Family (at a hefty $1.4 million per episode) and a half-hour from sitcom veteran Linda Bloodworth Thomason in development, Jeff Wachtel, president of original programming at USA Network, is gearing up to enter USA into the half-hour comedy business. He’s also looking to expand into reality programming and hire an unscripted development team, and hopes to have a new franchise on the air by next summer.

“It’s exciting but it’s a little bit dangerous,” Wachtel says. “What people tend to do is sit on their lead, and that’s the worst thing you can do. Playing it safe has never been part of our DNA.”

Modern Family will begin its runs on USA in 2013. Wachtel says he hopes to have an original half-hour comedy on-air by the end of 2011. The Bloodworth Thomason project is a singlecamera sitcom starring Ron White, a former member of the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, as a guy who starts his own limo service after he gets pink-slipped. Wachtel describes the comedy as having a “politically incorrect All in the Family vibe.”

As it did when it was expanding its drama brand, USA will use acquisitions such as Modern Family to provide “fertile ground” for original comedies, Wachtel says. But the biggest challenge, he adds, may be one not of creative success but of creative scheduling, since much of ad-supported cable is scheduled on the hour.

“We’re already in the comedy business,” Wachtel says. “Psych is a comedy. It’s a comedy with a dead body every week. But it’s a comedy. [Monk’s] Tony Shalhoub is nominated for an Emmy in comedy. We’re in the comedy business. The question now is, how do you move to the half-hour?”

Modern Family is a linchpin, one that Wachtel acknowledges comes with risks because the show is only in its first season. But he stresses that the network is taking a “handcrafted” rather than a “scattershot” approach to expansion. As USA did with Monk, which was developed for ABC, In Plain Sight (developed for UPN) and latest drama pilot Common Law, which was at CBS, Wachtel is not averse to shopping on the development shelves at other networks for comedy contenders. “A lot of our successes have come from tweaking something that was on somebody else’s garbage heap,” he says.

Watchel is also reviewing his own drama development stock for half-hour potential as well: “We may have something that has the comedic presence but maybe not the narrative drive [for an hour], so maybe it’s better served as a half-hour.”

The network is also looking to get back into the limited-series business, where it has had success before with The Starter Wife and The 4400, as well as longform projects in the mold of Tom Brokaw’s Highway 50 documentary.

“We were certainly pioneers in original programming on cable,” Wachtel points out. “Now we have a sustainable critical mass of one-hours. At some point, you want to take the approach that you bring to new projects and move that unified vision to approaching new genres.

“As we look to grow USA beyond being simply the No. 1 cable network to being a leading entertainment brand, period, you need to expand your horizons.”

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