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USA’s “Character” Builder

Summer’s here, and it’s the season for cable originals. With USA Network bringing back three—Monk, DeadZone, The 4400—and debuting Psych, Executive VP of Original Programming Jeff Wachtel spoke to B&C’s Anne Becker about wrestling, having a powerful parent and living up to its “Characters Welcome” branding.

Are you aiming to reach a different demo—young males—with this latest wave of originals?

Monk was the game changer. That was the show that changed the way people looked at our network. Really, the hardest thing to do in our business is create one of those. The second hardest is to keep it going. The third hardest is to create the next one. The 4400 was a great thing for us because we had been saying for a while the secret of our original programming’s success was its appeal to women.

People have been thinking about USA as a network for guys. Informed people will still say, your target audience is mostly guys, right? Wrong. Our overall mix is 50/50 men and women, and our original programming is 60% female. That was a lesson I learned when I started to do research on Law & Order. I was amazed to see that Law & Order, a pretty gritty show, had 60% women in the audience. We said the key for our success was creating shows men would embrace but women would be the core audience to. That was true with Monk, and the surprise was that it was certainly true of Dead Zone and The 4400. It has to do with the way we tell the stories. They’re stories of flawed people in challenging circumstances. Even the heroes are characters who are imperfect, vulnerable.

How do you introduce new shows and stay within a cable budget?

We’re the No. 1 cable network, based on our original programs and wrestling, and we better be smart enough to actively be creating the next wave. Yes, it’s a budget challenge, but one of the ongoing discussions we have with the parent company [NBC] is allowing us to intelligently and conservatively build on our success.

Speaking of the parent company, NBC just aired a 4400 clip show. What other benefits come with the NBC Universal umbrella?

The promotional platform. NBC has been very generous in supporting and helping us launch our shows. The most recent example was giving us an hour of primetime for the 4400 clip show. It’s nice to be part of a larger team in this world.

WWE programming has helped catapult you to the top of the ratings. Who’s watching it?

The amazing thing is that it brings in so many people who only watch wrestling. Every week, we have more than 5 million people tune in just for wrestling, and when wrestling’s over, 60%-70% of them turn off the TV. It’s young men, nothing surprising at all. The only thing a little surprising at all for the overall audience of wrestling is, people do watch it as families. I was a little surprised to see at the live events and know from our research that, more than you would think, it’s also a family viewing experience.

It’s colorful programming, shall we say? How do you build off of it with companion shows?

We’re developing some action movies that will be backdoor pilots. We’re developing some reality specifically targeted to young men. Also, people come to wrestling like a big concert. That’s the big party, and we’re thinking of doing a show like the after-party that would be a great place for guys to stick around after they watch wrestling. An umbrella for a reality show. It’s really early in development.