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USA Analysis


USA's line-up is one of the most watchable in cable. Designed to make it easy for viewers to know when to tune in and what to expect, the net rarely makes a programming misstep.

WWE dominates Monday nights and took over all three primetime hours this July. Off network dramas comprise the white noise that holds the network together with strips and three-hour primetime blocks. The network acquisitions bring in a steady audience flow and a lot of live viewing that is used to help build original franchises. NCIS and LAW & ORDER: SVU typically fill that role. Movies play a lesser role, filling programming holes and holiday-themed nights and weekends.

Original one-hour dramas are starting to saturate the line-up. This summer, Friday and Sunday nights were back in play, and USA is considering running series straight through instead of splitting them up into summer and winter seasons. Original programming is running nearly all year long now. " We are now a four-quarter network, even though our dominance is in the summer.  We don’t want to be beholden to a 52-week schedule, but it’s about having something on always to keep us in the audience’s mind," (Jeff Wachtel in MultiChannel News).

USA’s long-talked about jump into reality and comedy began this year, and scheduling for the new programming genres will undoubtedly stir up the extraordinarily consistent strategies of recent years. There have also been some public moves towards expanding original programming into late night and daytime.


Live + Same Day Primetime Ratings Comparison / October 2012 vs. October 2011 (% Change)

Source: The Nielsen Company's National Television Audience Sample

OCTOBER 2012: It was slim pickings for USA viewers this month as the peak season for original dramas came to an end. Ratings vs. last year dropped by 13% for core adults 25-54. No single night was able to show significant growth; for the most part audiences were slipping away. Compared to September, total primetime demo audience fell between 5% and 9%.

Monday nights were wall-to-wall WWE. The extra hour of wrestling helped to give male ratings a 12% boost vs. last year, but they slipped vs. last month -- male ratings dropped by 11% vs. September.

The big story on USA this month was the return of COVERT AFFAIRS. The USA original drama ended the first half of season three on
September 18, then went on hiatus for four weeks, returning with the second half of the season on October 16th. (Original return date was scheduled for October 9th). Why is this a big story? It represents a significant shift in scheduling strategy. USA’s summer dramas traditionally air the second half of their seasons in the winter, months after the first half of the season ends. Running straight through a season is an idea the network has floated but not acted upon, until now. Results for COVERT AFFAIRS will surely affect future scheduling strategies at USA.

Performance was mixed vs. the September numbers when the first half of season three came to a close. The second half of season three is pacing 22% behind on households, 10% behind on men and even for core women vs. September’s performance. It looks like four weeks was enough time for some viewers to get out of the COVERT AFFAIRS habit. But numbers are up nicely compared to the start of the second half of season two, (November 2011) when there was a three-month hiatus. Household ratings are up by over 25% while demos are up by 40% or more over last year.

NCIS and LAW & ORDER: SVU dominated the rest of the schedule with nearly three-fourths of the primetime line-up devoted to one or the other off-net procedural. While viewers are turning out for the two stalwarts as compared to other cable networks, they are not tuning in as much as they used to, and the result is a sinking bottom line. Compared to last year, ratings declines are near 20% across the board.  September also saw a heavy rotation of the two programs, and although there was some recovery vs. last month, it looks like viewers are starting to burn out.

As we have discussed before, USA knew it was time to spread its wings a long time ago, and is actively developing a new slate of programs that encompasses new genres. They have cancelled the lowest rated programs to make way for the new.
Futon Critic provided this ratings rank of USA’s 2012 scripted originals.
(Live+SD, 1/1/12-10/28/12):

4.401 million - Burn Notice (1.2 adults 18-49 rating)

3.780 million - Suits (1.2)

3.744 million - Royal Pains (1.0)

3.304 million - In Plain Sight (0.7)

3.283 million - Covert Affairs (0.9)

3.116 million - White Collar (1.0)

2.741 million - Fairly Legal (0.6)

2.713 million - Necessary Roughness (0.7)

2.618 million - Psych (0.9)

2.126 million - Political Animals (0.5)

2.118 million - Common Law (0.6)

Out with the old: the three lowest rated programs (on demo), COMMON LAW, POLITICAL ANIMALS and FAIRLY LEGAL each received cancellation notices after their summer runs; IN PLAIN SIGHT was given notice before its last season aired this year.

And in with the new: a new Denis Leary comedy pilot SIRENS has begun production and the net is moving ahead with three unscripted projects -- PARTNERS IN CRIME (docusoap), ALL IN (gameshow) and THE COWBOY WAY (observational documentary). Previously announced projects set to launch in 2013 include unscripted series THE CHOIR and THE MOMENT, plus a pilot for BRIDE OR BEST MAN.

What is USA looking for in unscripted? “Our approach to reality storytelling is to showcase a broad spectrum of life’s real characters,” said Heather Olander, svp alternative programming. “By partnering with these reality heavyweights, whose distinct voices have influenced the genre, we are offering audiences a new reason to engage with USA.” – USA press release