New York Finally offering a peek at his plans, USA
Networks Inc. programming chief Stephen Chao last week took the wraps off his first
development slate for USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel.
Chao unveiled an eclectic batch of eight original series
for 1999 that range from supernatural fantasy fare to a variety show and a news program.
There are five series in development for USA, with an
emphasis on hour-long dramas, according to Chao, as well as three for Sci-Fi. USA Networks
chairman Barry Diller brought in Chao as president of programming and marketing in April,
effectively superceding Rod Perth, who has since left the company.
After keeping a low profile for the past six months, Chao
hopped on the red eye from his base in Los Angeles to be here last week in order to tout
his new slate to the media.
He also said USA is in the process of rethinking its
Saturday-night schedule, adding that one of its current centerpieces, The Net,is
undergoing a major overhaul. Last week, it was assigned a new time slot and two new
Asked about his overall game plan for USA, Chao said,
"I wish I could speak in broad strategy strokes, but the truth is that you get one
idea at a time, and you just try to nurture them as best as you can."
Chao added, "You have to be somewhat inclusive of
stuff that is experimental and that can redefine where you're going. As a practical
matter, it's pretty hard to know what's going to work."
Commenting on the numerous dramas that USA has on its
development slate, Chao said he's trying to capitalize on the network's base of
action-driven dramas with strong female leads.
"We have a real strength in the drama category, and
that's a fact, and it's fortuitous creatively because it is very hard to innovate in the
sitcom area, generally," said Chao, who was Diller's programming guru at the
fledgling Fox broadcast network in the 1980s.
"But it is possible to innovate in the drama
area."And in a more unusual twist, Chao sees a similar chance for USA to break out
and make waves by trying its hand at two other genres: variety shows and a primetime news
The series being developed for USA are: GvsE, about
a hero who, after his death, is drafted to work for the forces of good against evil; Love
Police, where a love goddess with special powers partners with a cop to solve sex
crimes, which is being written by Shaun Cassidy and executive-produced by Sam Raimi and
Robert Tapert; Happy Hour, an hour-long variety show; Maternal Instinct,
with a ruthless female protagonist who exploits the male ego; and Anderson Cooper News
Project, a one-hour, single-topic news-documentary series.
"You have to applaud him for not taking a
tried-and-true formula," said Ellen Oppenheim, senior vice president and media
director for Foote, Cone & Belding New York. "It's quirky."
Marc Berman, a media analyst at rep firm Seltel Inc., which
represents broadcast stations, questioned the decision to create several fantasy,
science-fiction-oriented series for USA, since those types of shows are Sci-Fi's
"You're kind of cutting into Sci-Fi's identity,"
Berman said. "And why do that when it's your spinoff channel?"
Overall, Berman said, Chao was wise to avoid creating
sitcoms for USA's lineup.
"He's trying different angles," Berman said of
Chao's slate. "It's an aggressive programming maneuver."
Five of the new series are being produced internally by USA
Networks the first time that this has ever been done with the remainder
produced by USA Studios. Chao said USA went in-house "to gear up as quickly as we
could and get ready for the new season. It's kind of a function of speed, to tell you the
The projects represent the first series being created under
Chao's own programming team: David Eick, senior vice president of original-series
development for USA, and Bonnie Hammer, senior vice president of programming for
As for USA tackling a news-documentary show, Chao said he
sees an opening to go beyond the newsmagazine formula that the broadcast networks have
"They're very similar," he said. "They've
served up a diet that's somewhat homogeneous. We can do a single topic. We can make the
on-air talent less broadcast-newsy. There's an opportunity in that broad category."
Chao called variety shows "a category that we should
explore, and that very few people are exploring seriously." He added, "You can
give the viewer a lot of pleasure in that category."
Berman gave Chao credit for his plan to tackle both a
variety show and a news program.
"You want to sprinkle your schedule with different
genres," he said.
And both he and Oppenheim pointed out that news programs
are relatively inexpensive to produce, which should be a plus for USA.
There are three shows on Sci-Fi's slate: Invisible Man,
the H.G. Wells title about a small-time thief who avoids a third-strike prison sentence by
undergoing an experiment that enables him to become temporarily invisible; Force of
Nature, a retelling of the werewolf myth from a woman's point of view; and Metropolis,
in which two beat cops investigate absurd, paranormal calls.
Metropolis will differ from The X-Files in that
it will be shot reality-video-style similar to the nightly news, or to a show like Cops
and, therefore, it will toy with viewers' perceptions, according to Chao.
"The camera never lies in video," he said.
"We think that it would be a wonderfully confusing experience for the viewer, who'll
say, 'Gee, there's a goat walking on the ceiling, but they didn't do an edit, so what the
heck is that all about?' We wanted to mess with people's expectations."
As for the rest of the Sci-Fi shows, Oppenheim described Invisible
Man as "a safe bet" for the network, since "there's brand recognition
Apart from the new shows, USA is taking another look at
Saturday night, where two original series The Net and Sins of the City,
both created under Perth's wing debuted this summer. Sins has already been
canceled, and "we're furiously reworking The Net," Chao said.
Effective Nov. 14, USA is moving The Net to 10 p.m.
from 9 p.m. Saturday's and is adding two new regular characters to the show.
"I initiated the marketing money," Chao said.
"I don't think that we did a great job in terms of the original conception of the
shows and taking two dramas and going up against the competition. We had a very tough time
because it was dramas against dramas We completely have to rethink Saturday night.
We have to aim it in a different direction and figure out what represents
The first series from the development slate is expected to
go on-air as early as March, with most of the remainder set for June, according to Chao.
He declined to put a price tag on the development slate, or to say which shows have
already been green-lighted with commitments to go on-air.
"Some of them won't make it," he said.
USA will have additional program announcements in the next
few weeks, including more series being done by third parties and a list of original
Revamps of the on-air looks of both USA and Sci-Fi are also
slated for the first half of next year, after the new programming is on, according to
"Branding really should always follow
programming," he said. "It's somewhat of a mistake to make brand statements
about this is who you are, and this is what we represent, until you have the programming
muscle to back up your bravado, or boast, or statement until we have a sensibility
emanating from our shows."