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.
WWE dominates Monday nights and took over all three primetime hours in July of 2012. 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, occasionally filling programming holes and holiday-themed nights and weekends.
Original one-hour dramas are starting to saturate the line-up. In the busy summer season five nights were in play, and USA has experimented with 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 has begun, and scheduling for the new programming genres will undoubtedly stir up the extraordinarily consistent strategies of recent years. Original programming is also leaking out of primetime into late night, as USA turns its eye to a new time-period.
APRIL 2013 PRIMETIME RATINGS ANALYSIS:
Live + Same Day Primetime Ratings Comparison / April 2013 vs. April 2012 (% Change)
Source: The Nielsen Company's National Television Audience Sample
APRIL 2013: USA lost its once-secure spot at the top of the cable ratings ladder. After an eight-year reign in the number one position, the net has been pushed down to the second or third rung by A&E, TBS, TNT and/or History (depending upon the demo). The April monthly primetime LSD ratings among CableU’s top 30 nets put USA in the top spot for households, but it is fourth on male demos and third on adults 18-49 and 25-54. It is also one of the oldest skewing networks among the CableU 30 this month, behind only HGTV and ID. The network still finds success with its trifecta of blue-skies originals, WWE night and acquired procedurals, but USA audiences have leveled out while competitors down the cable box have found fresh franchises to draw new audiences.
This April, USA’s average bottom-line primetime ratings were stagnant vs. last year, down just a few percentage points, but they took double-digit declines vs. March. In fact, USA was one of just a small handful of nets to take double-digit losses vs. last month, and most of those other networks were coming off tentpole events (History’s THE BIBLE, AMC’s WALKING DEAD, live NCAA games on TBS).
USA saw the writing on the wall, and started making corrective moves to right the ship over three years ago when it acquired the iconic ABC comedy MODERN FAMILY. The net will use the series to launch its own original half hour sitcoms in the fall. In addition, its blue-skies originals will take a darker turn, starting with GRACELAND, scheduled to launch this summer. And, its entrée into primetime reality began this month with the premiere of THE MOMENT.
Premiering Thursday, April 11 at 10PM, the hour-long MOMENT went for feel-good reality, giving people a second shot at pursuing their dream career. Unfortunately, it didn’t attract a strong following, relative to USA standards. Women 25-54 lost half of the NCIS lead-in audience for the premiere and it dropped another 10% in each of the two subsequent weeks. Still, THE MOMENT drew over one million total viewers in its first outing (dropping to 950 thousand by the third, according to Futon Critic). While this would be a bona-fide hit for some cable nets, it is a not-ready-for-primetime player for USA. By the day after the third outing, the show was bumped into latenight to 11PM on Friday nights. Which begs the question, can USA produce reality with big enough numbers for its primetime line-up? USA has affirmed its commitment to the genre and more reality in the blue-skies vein is slated to launch in the summer (THE CHOIR and SUMMER CAMP).
WWE continues as USA’s biggest audience draw, and when it stumbles the bottom line suffers. This April the Monday night wrestling block took an 8% drop on core men 18-49 vs. last month and a 10% drop vs. last year.
The core of the schedule, NCIS and LAW & ORDER: SVU showed slight improvement vs. last year (+5% and +6% on adults 25-54), and that was what kept bottom-line ratings on pace. However, the two procedurals stumbled vs. last month (-12% and -7%). There has been a lot of press about MODERN FAMILY, and if it can live up to the big ratings of USA’s heavy-hitting originals, or even TBS’ BIG BANG THEORY. But MODERN FAMILY’s true benchmark will be these two strong but aging acquisitions.
The only USA original drama airing in April was PSYCH, on Wednesday nights. The series is USA’S longest running series currently on air, in its seventh season, and still has life left in it. (Last month PSYCH’s 100th episode aired). Its adult 25-54 delivery is on par with both last month and last year’s performances, and its eighth season was just upped from eight to thirteen eps.
Looking ahead, beyond the above-mentioned reality shows coming this summer, is the comedy launch in the fall. In the New York Times, Chris McCumber, co-president of USA, said “USA would most likely use MODERN FAMILY much as TBS has used BIG BANG — all over its schedule, sometimes filling a whole night of prime time. We want to be careful not to overuse it, but we think it will raise all boats in prime time.” In addition there are two original comedies that will likely launch; SIRENS, a paramedic comedy with Denis Leary, and PLAYING HOUSE, an offbeat female buddy comedy. There has also been a lot of press about USA picking up ABC comedy HAPPY ENDINGS.
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