USA Network is banking that Doug Herzog will use the tough lessons he learned at both Comedy Central and the Fox broadcast network to better compete against the cable channel's near dozen general-entertainment rivals.
Stripped of its World Wrestling Federation franchise and looking to increase and stabilize its ratings, USA Network last week named Herzog president.
He essentially replaces Rob Sorcher, whose brief stint as executive vice president and general manager of USA began in September. USA would say only that Sorcher's departure was a mutual decision.
At least initially, Herzog doesn't plan any radical change in USA's direction, no edgy fare like South Park, which he brought to Comedy Central during his stay as its president.
At USA, Herzog said he plans to build on those franchises where the network has already seen some success, such as original series, miniseries and made-for-TV movies. "It's about being smart," Herzog said. "There's a general brand we can build upon. But we can feel more urgent, feel more contemporary and be more compelling than we have in the past."
Herzog, who had a rocky and short tenure as president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Co., will report to USA Cable president Stephen Chao.
Both Herzog and Chao agreed that general-entertainment services such as USA face a tough environment. That's because five cable services and six broadcast networks have crowded the general-entertainment playing field, according to Chao.
"The competition in general entertainment is huge," he said. "It's clear the question is, 'How do we compete in all of this?'"
Herzog, who spent 11 years at MTV: Music Television before joining Comedy Central in 1995, agreed that it's more difficult to program a non-niche TV network.
"It's easier to run a niche or boutique channel," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's still about good programming. I'm going to try to pull appropriate old tricks out of my bag to succeed here."
Herzog left Fox in March of last year, after a 17-month reign in which he wasn't able to develop any white-hot hits, although Malcolm In the Middle
achieved a good measure of success. After 20th Century Fox Television studio head Sandy Grushow assumed top programming duties at the Fox network, over Herzog, he left.
Like Herzog, both Chao and USA Networks Inc. chairman Barry Diller are veterans of Fox.
Even as a general-entertainment network USA must hone its identity, said The Media Edge broadcast division president Bob Igiel.
"USA has some issues it has to come to grips with," he said. "USA needs to define its mission better. It needs to have an overall vision, and Doug is the one to provide it."
The network lost its No. 1 status in primetime following its loss of the WWF in September. It managed to come back and tie TBS Superstation for No. 1 in primetime for the month of February.
USA has a history of success with miniseries, such as its recent Attila,
whose first installment was the top-rated basic-cable program during the February Nielsen Media Research period. USA's female-oriented hour-long action series, La Femme Nikita
and The Huntress, have also done well.
Chao said Herzog's cable and broadcast experience make him uniquely qualified to run USA.
"He's a very savvy, smart guy," Chao said.
USA will continue to concentrate on one-hour dramatic series, and though action has "traditionally worked well here, we don't want to repeat ourselves," Herzog said.
He lauded USA for its success with miniseries like Attila, which he called "a great cable event." The network must also make its original movies in to major events that create "buzz" and "water-cooler talk," Herzog added.
He sees a major opportunity for USA in two reality shows from Survivor
creator Mark Burnett: Eco-Challenge: Borneo
and Combat Missions.
Herzog worked with Burnett back on the first Eco-Challenge
in 1995, while at MTV.