Chaos Risk: Pushing USAs Edge Too Far


Maverick programmer Stephen Chao has been at USA Networks
Inc. for more than one year now, and the shows he has shepherded are finally finding their
way onto his channels.

Happy Hour,an offbeat and updated variety show
on Saturday nights, debuted April 3 on USA Network.

Hosted by Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa as a hip Sábado
, Happy Hour has garnered mixed reviews, with some of them fairly
biting. And it hasn't struck gold in the ratings department.

Next month -- when USA is also set to unveil a new logo and
on-air look -- another series Chao has high hopes for, GvsE,premieres on
the network. The hour-long program, which kicks off July 18, is from two independent film
producers, Josh and Jonas Pate.

In an unusual move, the press kit and review tape for GvsE
includes a letter from Chao to TV critics.

Identifying himself as USA Networks' president of
programming and marketing, Chao wrote, "When I started at USA Networks a little over
one year ago, I promised to bring viewers innovative, creative and compelling new
television series. My goal was to develop concepts that stand apart from the standard
fare. With that said, it gives me great pride to introduce to you a series that fulfills
these intentions -- GvsE."

Described as a "comedy thriller," GvsE, as
in "good versus evil," is about two men who are recruited to be bounty hunters
for God, assigned to hunt down "morlocks" -- those who have made pacts with the
dark side.

"I just love the sensibility of the show," Chao
said in an interview with Multichannel News. "When you see it, you'll
know that this is not born out of the television fabric. It is very original in the way
that Men in Black and Pulp Fiction were completely original movies."

GvsE -- which will be part of USA's Sunday-night
lineup of original shows -- mixes humor, the supernatural and gore in a manner somewhat
reminiscent of The X-Files, although the visual styles of the two shows are totally

GvsE is certainly edgy, and therein lies the rub for
Chao. His claim to fame is creating "out-of-the-box," cutting-edge programming,
like inventing "tabloid TV" at the Fox broadcast network.

That fare, however, could prove too much for broad-based
USA's core audience and drive them away, hurting its No. 1 ratings in primetime.


Chao is aware of the risk. "At USA, the task is really
one of evolving what has been built, which is substantial," he said.

"I inherited something that is obviously the No. 1
channel in cable in primetime," Chao added. "The trick is to be confident with
what the company has been in the past 20 years, and second, to create programs that
represent an attitude or a sensibility without completely disenfranchising the rest of the
past. Those shows will be more in evidence starting in the summer, and then Tuesday night
in January 2000."

Chao has always been short on details when he's asked
what his broad vision and programming strategy is for USA. But his feet will be held to
the fire over the next few months, as the shows he developed finally debut on the

Chao has been busy during the past 14 months. There are so
many series and made-for-TV movies in development now for USA and Sci-Fi Channel that Chao
claims he hasn't kept count.

In September, as the result of a breakthrough television
deal that made headlines, USA will begin airing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at
11 p.m. Sundays, just 13 days after the episodes air on NBC.

This marks the first time a broadcast primetime drama has
aired concurrently on a cable network.

But the most massive undertaking Chao has in the works is a
20-hour, $40 million miniseries, Taken, which Steven Spielberg will
executive-produce for Sci-Fi.

"I'm a little bit focused on one thing, which is
the Steven Spielberg project for next summer," Chao said. "It's such a
massive undertaking. It's 20 hours. It's Steven Spielberg. He's a maniac
about details on every level. And it's such a substantial financial [undertaking]
… it's like a Sci-Fi bar mitzvah."

According to Chao, "There are certainly a number of
shows and programs that we're planning to launch before then, but with this one, I
really want to be sure that we make it perfectly, we promote it perfectly, and the
audience loves it perfectly. And it just such a big, looming project that it's
impossible to ignore in any sense."

Chao said Taken "can genuinely grow Sci-Fi in
an important, significant way … because Sci-Fi is not the biggest cable channel in
distribution. And this is the most important miniseries certainly ever on cable and,
arguably, on broadcast."


For the first quarter of 2000, Chao has enlisted Shaun
Cassidy to create an original show that will air Tuesday nights on USA, giving the network
its third evening of original fare.

And in what may be one of his riskiest moves, also for
early next year, Chao is planning a soap opera about working-class characters, set in
Queens, N.Y., that will air in early fringe, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

During his tenure to date, Chao has already ruffled some
feathers, which has been his modus operandi in the past. A number of programming
executives have left USA and Sci-Fi since his arrival, and stories about Chao's
temper and temperament have also been flowing out of the company.

He has cancelled four shows: Silk Stalkings, Sins
of the City
and The Net on USA, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 on

And at January's Television Critics Association tour,
Chao raised the eyebrows, and hackles, of the writers when he had World Wrestling
Federation chief Vince McMahon and Happy Hour's scantily clad
"Bombshell" dancers appear.

Chao's gruff side was also in evidence at the TCA tour
when he snapped at some assistants after they ran the wrong tape during his presentation.

Chao was in a far cheerier mood, and he seemed far more at
ease -- cheeky, but funny -- when he moderated a panel at the National Show in Chicago
last week on the creative and economic differences between doing a series for basic cable
versus broadcast.

As for Chao's programming and personal philosophy, one
TV critic, who wanted to remain anonymous, characterized Chao as "proudly
defiant" now and in the past.

Chao makes no apologies for the WWF, which is USA's
ratings champ, or for anything.

"I respect what the critics do, but I'm an
unequivocal supporter of World Wrestling, and I have been -- ironically enough or
surprisingly enough -- a fan of the WWF since I was seven or eight years old," Chao

"So I'm completely unconflicted … I always
loved the WWF and, as it turns out, just by coincidence, I happen to be with the channel
that has the WWF," he added. "So [TV critics] can say what they want. I love the
program, and I think Vince McMahon is a bona fide genius."

As for his own tenures to date, Chao is the first to
acknowledge that a programmer can't put a stamp on a network overnight.

"In terms of programming, it takes time," he
said. "It took Fox and The WB [Television Network] three or four years before they
really had their pulse. It depends on what shows hit and when. I can only make the best
show I can make. But it's really the audience that decides that, not me."


People in a number of camps, from Madison Avenue to TV
critics, will be watching what Chao does the rest of the year.

"He's going to take risks," said Tim
Spengler, senior vice president and general manager of national television at Western
Initiative Media Worldwide. "A lot of times, those things pay off, and sometimes they

USA needs to get to the next level -- to a 3.0 Nielsen
Media Research rating from its 2.6 in primetime in the first quarter -- according to
Spengler. "Chao has to find shows that are appointment television at USA," he

Spengler isn't going to miss any of the shows that
Chao cancelled, describing those programs as "long in the tooth."

Not everyone agreed with Spengler on that point, however.

"Canceling MST3K is definitely a blow to
quality TV -- a blow that the USA empire, especially, cannot afford," Chicago
TV critic Steve Johnson said.

Johnson was also skeptical about Sci-Fi ballyhooing its
miniseries from Spielberg. "His track record as a TV producer is pretty thin,"
he added, chiming in with his own theory about what Chao must do.

"From the critics' standpoint, the challenge for
Chao is to try to make something that doesn't succeed purely on schlock value, like
the WWF or Pacific Blue or La Femme Nikita,"Johnson said.
"He needs to come up with a South Park or [The] Daily Show that
takes advantage of his main channel's penetration and popularity."

New York Post TV critic Adam Buckman is waiting to see
what overall strategy Chao has planned for USA. "With the best networks, their
positioning is relatively apparent throughout what they do," he said. "You know
what a Fox or a WB is if you look at the whole lineup."

Buckman is still giving Chao time to do the same for USA.

"Maybe in a year, USA will have more of a cohesive
lineup," Buckman said. "Seeing is believing."

Buckman and Johnson were not big fans of what they've
seen so far from Chao on USA -- Happy Hour.

Johnson conceded that he only saw the first episode of Happy
,"which seemed to me like it should have been called Sloppy Hour.
Perhaps the show has developed since then -- perhaps."

Buckman described Happy Hour as "silly, sexist

In fact, Happy Hour isn't unique in terms of
new shows that are pandering to young men. It's just one of a crop of shows from
cable networks -- from Comedy Central to FX to MTV: Music Television -- that San
Francisco Chronicle
TV critic Tim Goodman said "are programming for the
'YesterMale' … the man's man, the proud, remote-toting


Chuck Barney, TV critic for the Contra Costa Times in
California, hasn't been particularly enamored of Happy Hour.

"Chao definitely seems to be following up on his
promise to develop concepts that stand apart from the standard fare," Barney said,
"but being different isn't always better. I can't stand Happy Hour…[It's]
brutal … juvenile … And I just received a tape of GvsE. The concept
sounds strange, but I haven't seen it yet."

According to Chao, Happy Hour'sratings
have been just about what The Net was doing in that 9 p.m. Saturday time slot.

"Saturday night is a hard night," he said.
"My maiden task is in the category of variety. There's a natural evolution that
happens in the first 13 or 20 episodes where it just has to find its own inherent rhythm,
whether you go back to [Dean Martin Presents] TheGolddiggers or In
Living Color
or [Rowan and Martin's] Laugh In.So I'm
mostly focused on making the rhythm of Happy Hour just right. It's improving
rapidly, which is the nature of this particular form."

USA's bailiwick for years has been original movies,
and it in fact helped to create the genre with its "women-in-jeopardy" films.
Chao said one of his goals was to broaden the kinds of stories USA turns into made-for-TV

"My biggest concern when I got here was that
'women in jeopardy' -- an area that USA created as a movie area back in '89
-- got so filled up by the competition that there was no room to breathe anymore," he
said. "So I just thought the most important thing was to expand beyond that."

And he is. For example, Hallmark Entertainment is doing a
four-hour miniseries on Attila the Hun that will air on USA in the third quarter of next
year, Chao said. He's also interested in the thriller genre.

Referring to the movies and miniseries USA will do from now
on, Chao said, "A variety of really well-conceived ideas is the diet. Expanding the
diet is the most important thing to me, one idea at a time … and ultimately,
we'll come up with some formula that might be informative."

Beyond movies, Chao even plans to take on the soap-opera
genre -- something USA has never done -- with The Avenue.

The half-hour, weeknight show will premiere in the first
quarter of next year, and it will center on two working-class Irish families in Queens. It
will be filmed on location in Queens and Manhattan.

Doing a soap opera sounds totally incongruous for an
"edgy" programmer, but Chao claimed that this won't be the typical sudser.

"I'm definitely not going for that daytime-soap
sensibility," he said. "I'm going for everybody who doesn't watch
those. In fact, The Avenue willbe in a time period -- 5 o'clock to 8
o'clock -- where it's not the housewife or the unemployed who is watching it.
It's a broad range of people -- the same broad range that watches Jeopardy or

Chao compared The Avenue to the kinds of soap operas
that air in Hispanic countries or in England, which are unlike U.S. soaps.

"I can watch a Spanish soap or an English soap or an
Australian soap happily, but I just can't watch the American soaps," he said.
"They don't speak to me at all … If you look at Coronation Street, EastEnders,
the Latin American soaps -- they bear no resemblance to All My Children."

So The Avenue, with its humor and everyday people,
can work as a unique soap, according to Chao.

"It's about the melodrama of interesting
characters, and that's a huge range of storytelling that isn't at all
overlapping with what … we know as daytime soaps," he said.

Steve Grubbs, BBDO Worldwide's director of national TV
buying, said he thinks The Avenue "is a great idea. Nobody's ever done
that before."

He noted that with all of the "copycat stuff" on
TV, "anything that's a little different can do a lot toward driving success. My
sense is that this is what Chao is trying to do: create some marquee shows."

Still, cable operators such as Linda Stuchell, vice
president of programming at Harron Communications Corp., expressed concern that USA under
Chao may try to evolve into a niche service, rather than remaining a broad-based
entertainment service.

"USA continues to be the highest-rated cable network,
so I don't know if you can ask for much more than that," she said
"It's such a diverse network that has such broad appeal to a lot of viewers.
They have to be careful not to upset the apple cart. But you can't stay