USA Chiefs Talk Programming Strategy

WACHTEL, McCUMBER ON RATINGS LEADER’S PUSH INTO COMEDY, REALITY
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USA Network will look to extend its summer ratings win streak among ad-supported cable networks to eight years with a mix of returning series and new shows. At the same time, it’s keeping an eye on the 2013 cable ratings prize through a third- and fourth-quarter lineup that includes the launch of off-network comedy series Modern Family. Network co-presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber spoke recently with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about upcoming programming plans and the move into new content genres, such as comedy.

MCN: Going into the second half of the year, how would you characterize USA’s programming strategy?

Jeff Wachtel: The major messaging is the expansion of the portfolio. We’ve been talking about entering the space of comedy and reality, and this is the year we’re really walking the walk. We have four to five reality shows and we’ve announced the pickup of two comedies, and we’re certainly sticking with the world that we know and love so well, which is the one-hour light drama. With Graceland, we’re opening up with some darker colors as well. It’s a very much on-brand, character-based show, but there are some darker shades of blue in that one.

Chris McCumber: Overall, for us it’s a real exciting time. There are a lot of different facets of this brand right now that are poised for growth. If you take a look at our network, we’re No. 1 and we have incredible loyalty from our fans, but there’s a lot of room still to grow. With our acquisitions of Modern Family and NCIS: Los Angeles, we have an opportunity to bring in new audiences and increase ratings. We’ve also opened up daytime, which is one of the biggest areas of real estate we have on the network and a place for our advertisers to partner with us. So I think there’s a lot of growth areas for us.

MCN: With regard to comedies, what are you trying to accomplish with regards to tone and how the genre fi ts the brand?

JW: As you know, we’re not new to comedy.

Monk’s Tony Shalhoub won three Emmys as best actor in a comedy; Psych is a comedy with a dead body. We love making people laugh. We are stepping into the half-hour format, and that’s because we happen to have the best half-hour comedy show in the world coming onto our air, which is Modern Family. One of the fun things about Modern Family is that it’s so many shows in one. It really enables us to launch a host of shows behind it. We can have shows with a male skew, a female skew, maybe one with an office romance — all sorts of things we can play with [using] that as our very strong launchpad.

MCN: Do you have a specifi c number in mind as to how many dramas, comedies and reality shows you want to have on-air on your schedule?

JW: We really don’t need to approach it as a formula — we’ve always been guided by our gut, as well as the shows that we love the most. Here’s an example: when Burn Notice came on the air five or six years ago, we were looking for a female-lead comedy and developed three pilots that year. One was In Plain Sight, which we didn’t pick up [at that time] because [lead actress Mary McCormack] got pregnant; another show which was just OK; and then Burn Notice, which came out of left field. We all looked at each other and said “this is the one … this is a great show.” So given the flexibility that we enjoy in cable we were able to shift and jump on the one that we loved the most.

Right now, one-hour dramas are always going to be maybe the most significant part of our programming, but we really do expect to have some very strong streams fl owing in, and to have a number of series, half-hour comedies and reality series.

MCN: Don’t budgets play a role in the number of original shows you can produce at a given time?

JW: Part of it is budget and part of it is focus. One of the big differences between us and the broadcasters is that we have the luxury of being able to focus on one thing at a time. Knock wood, it helps us with our success ratio and it also helps us with our internal focus, so this summer we’re launching Graceland; we’re also launching a wonderful reality show called Summer Camp, and that’s it. That’s what we’re focused on, along with bringing back all of our [existing] shows. But there’s a real wonderful sense of focus around here — we have a strong roster of programming, but we didn’t build them by throwing a lot of stuff out there; we built them one at a time.

CM: We’re not in the volume game; we’re in the quality game.

MCN: You mentioned daytime. How do you build on a daytime lineup that features mostly acquired movies and reruns of acquired off -net shows and your original programming?

CM: Daytime is the largest piece of real estate we have on the network and it’s probably the one of the most undervalued ones, given the fact that we’re No. 1 in daytime among cable networks. There always has been a mix of acquisitions and originals, but we wanted to create with Cat Greenleaf more opportunities for advertisers to partner with us. She’s a great personality and she’s worked with us before in our previous upfronts with our talent. We think she’s great for our daytime block and a great partner to work with. She will be developing vignettes that will air within the [daytime block] shows and bridge the shows.

She will basically be a host taking you through four hours of daytime. It’s a way for say a studio that’s launching a big release that weekend you can have the stars of that movie on throughout the week talking about the movie. There are endless ways to partner, because it’s a live face to daytime.

MCN: Also the game is to remain No. 1 in the ratings. Do you remain confident that the lineup of new and current show will be enough to keep you as the most watched network for the foreseeable future?

CM: Here’s the thing: What we do have is a great mix of programming with our three pillars — acquisitions, originals and three hours of WWE every Monday. The three of those working in tandem with each other gives us the best chance and best opportunity to remain at the top. 

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