USA Network has been the most-watched ad-supported basic-cable network in primetime for an unprecedented
six straight years, with a mix of original dramedies, acquired movies and off-network series. In 2012, the
“Characters Welcome” channel will diversify its lineup with comedy and reality programming and more edgy
and provocative scripted dramas. USA co-presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber spoke with Multichannel
News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead to discuss the programming evolution as part of an overall
analysis of the USA Network brand.
MCN: Why do you feel it’s necessary to
add comedy and reality programming
to a lineup that’s helped the network
remain No. 1 for the last six years?
Chris McCumber: Reality for USA is
a way to broaden our reach and bring
in new, younger viewers. What we’ve
done over the past several years is build
a brand that people are very invested
in. We have a lot of true fans at our network
that watch multiple shows, which
is great, but we want to bring in new
people to the tent. We know through
reality we can bring in those new viewers
that haven’t necessarily sampled
our dramas, but once they get inside
the tent we think they’re going to stay.
MCN: By broadening your programming
and your audience, don’t you risk
alienating some of your core viewers
that watch USA for your original dramas,
acquired movies and series?
Jeff Wachtel: You always have to be
concerned, but no risk, no reward.
We’re pushing out with some comedies that have a
little edgier profile, including a show with Denis Leary
(Sirens). Our dramas are now starting to push the envelope.
We’ve been a wonderful — knock wood — successful
place to find more upbeat, aspirational, blue-sky
dramas, and we’re going to stay within our wheelhouse
of shows. But we’re also going to push out. Political Animals,
a show we’re launching this summer, we think is
mind-blowing, provocative and brilliantly written and
conceived. It has the highest end of talent with Sigourney
Weaver. I guess it’s possible it might alienate our
stodgier viewers, but you always run that risk when you
are a broad network. We are most significantly staying
on our brand and pushing out that envelope.
McCumber: Tom, you bring up a good point. Yes, there’s
always the danger you might alienate people but I think
if you paint reality with a broad brush,
it might not be the right way to look at
it. There are different types of tones
to reality. The reality we’re doing —
whether it’s The Moments, where we
giving people a new lease on life or
giving them that dream job or dream
career that they’ve always wanted, [or]
The Choir, a show where [host] Gareth
Malone goes into a town a unites people
through song — the tone that we’re
taking is very aspirational and blue sky,
which is in keeping
with what we have
on the rest of the network.
We think it will
fit in quite well.
MCN: Still, you run
a risk of rocking the
boat and tinkering
McCumber: If you’re
complacent and you
just stick with what
you do, I think you’re in danger of losing
[your] position. … I think you have
to take some calculated risks to freshen
the network and actually freshen the
Wachtel: Being No. 1 is not a strategy.
Being No. 1 is the result of a successful
strategy. What you have to do is your
analysis and then go with your gut.
Chris’s and my job is not to chase our
tail and not to just do what we’ve been
doing, but to push out the network and
build on our success. The way we got
here was not by saying we have to be
No. 1 and what does it take to maintain
your position, but we got here by doing
shows that we love and
creating a brand around
those shows that people
love, and that’s the job for
MCN: If we’re talking next
year, how do you want
people to perceive USA’s
brand differently from what
they see now?
McCumber: I don’t think
we’re looking for people to
perceive the brand as different.
I think what we’ve
done so successfully is
create some of the most
loyal fans and some of the
most loyal audiences in
the business, and we know
that through our research.
The more loyalty people
have for the brand, the
more success you’ll have in a multiplatform world, on
the linear and digital side, mobile — as long as people
love USA and have an expectation that USA is going to
give them the program that they want and love, I think
that’s the key to our success. So it’s building on what we
MCN: Will we see USA expand into any other genres,
like sports, going forward?
CM: It’s funny you would say that because we have one
of the best performing sports/entertainment franchises
out there with WWE, which is 52 weeks a year — there’s
no off -season. It brings in a great live audience, and having
a live franchise that brings in a [signifi cant] audience
is more valuable than ever right now. As more and more
choices are out there right now, to be able to aggregate
an audience in one place live is incredibly important,
and WWE is a big part of that on Monday nights. For us
we’re looking for those sorts of live entertainment pieces
that get the audience there.
MCN: With all of the new shows and
genres USA will introduce this summer,
does it cannibalize any other parts of
your schedule, whether its additional
runs of movies or repeat episodes of
McCumber: One of the greatest things
about the cable industry is the marriage
between the acquisitions and
the originals — they work in concert
together. The acquisitions bring in a
steady audience flow and a lot of live
viewing, and we can use them to help
build our original franchises, which
again bring in more audiences and create
more value for the network. As we
start to add on pieces I think it’s less
about stuff leaving or new stuff coming
in and finding homes, but rather opening
up other dayparts. We’re looking
at not just prime time, but there might
be late night or daytime [block] for
USA. We look at our schedule in totality
and say, “Where are places that we
can leverage right now?” And “where
are places where audiences are looking
that they’re underserved?”
Wachtel: Right now we have seven or eight scripted
series in the summer, so we own three nights. Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday nights we have a two-hour
programming block in the summer. We’re also going to
go after Sundays in the summer with Political Animals.
We have a Friday presence with Common Law and 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.
MCN: Anything I missed that you want to add?
Wachtel: Maybe just to double back on something we
talked about before. It’s an argument Chris and I are making
internally, and that’s how do you build on the success
and how do you keep things fresh? It’s by challenging your
assumptions and by not being afraid to take risks. Chris
has a phrase we using now which is, we’re the world’s biggest
startup. That’s the way we like to approach each day.
It’s a little different: We know we’re big and successful, and
it’s really exciting to have created that brand and profile,
but you can’t come into work every day trying to protect
your lead. You have to be reaching out.