Buoyed by the success of its "Sunday Night Heat"
primetime block, USA Network will extend its original programming on
weekends into Saturday night this summer, officials said last week.
USA will debut two original series -- hour-long dramas The
Net and Shades of Sin -- in primetime Saturday, starting in July. The Net
is based on the feature film of the same name, which starred Sandra Bullock, while
Miami-based Shades of Sin is about an ex-cop turned private eye. For the expansion,
USA has ordered an initial 13 episodes of each show, which are in preproduction and being
"This is all part of our commitment to and belief in
original programming, and it has everything to do with our success on Sundays," said
Rod Perth, president of USA Networks Entertainment.
USA is among the basic-cable networks that have pioneered
developing original hour-long dramas for primetime, and others are following suit.
Lifetime Television has green-lighted two pilots for 60-minute dramas, and it will pick
one of them to debut this summer, when the broadcast networks are in reruns. The pilots
are Any Day Now, which will be shot on location in New Orleans and star Annie Potts
and Lorraine Toussaint, and West Wing, which is set in Washington, D.C.
In the premium-service arena, Showtime
airs a slate of original, hour-long, science-fiction shows on Friday nights, and last
week, it ordered three new, original, hour-long dramas from MGM Worldwide Television
Group. As part of that pact, MGM will produce two 22-episode series and one 44-episode
series for Showtime. In addition, Showtime also substantially increased its current orders
with MGM for episodes of original series Stargate SG-1, The Outer Limits and
Dead Man's Gun.
USA is hoping to duplicate the kind of ratings gains that
it has enjoyed on Sunday nights with its "Heat" block of originals -- which
includes Pacific Blue, Silk Stalkings and La Femme Nikita -- airing
from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. In February, ratings for the "Heat" block on Sundays rose
33 percent over February 1997, with a 2.0 average.
Some Madison Avenue pundits were questioning the wisdom of
USA debuting two original shows on Saturday evenings, which is one of the most difficult
nights to program, as many people are out of the home. Sunday night, in contrast,
typically has high viewing levels.
"Saturday night is one of the toughest nights, because
of the audience available and how they watch," said Jon Mandel, director of national
broadcast for Grey Advertising. "It's not like the family getting together to
watch. And the pay [service] guys run their good things on Saturday night."
Perth is the first to agree that Saturday nights are
"There is no denying that Saturday is the toughest
night there is to compete," he said. "But every single night has its problems.
And if we do all of our originals on the weekend, it provides us with a promotional hook.
So, in balance, you have to pick your shot and take it."
USA hasn't definitely set the time slots for its two
Saturday-night shows, but one will most likely air at 9 p.m. and the other at 10 p.m., a
USA spokeswoman said. USA is now airing a theatrical movie at 8 p.m. Saturdays, and it
typically repeats a USA original movie at 10 p.m. The 8 p.m. movie has been averaging a
2.3 rating, while the 10 p.m. film has been doing a 1.8.
Perth doesn't expect The Net and Shades of
Sin to instantly boost USA's Saturday-night viewership. "I guarantee that it
will start slow, and we'll be patient," he said.
Steve Grubbs, BBDO's director of national TV buying,
said USA is on the right track to extend its original series on weekends, citing the mark
that La Femme Nikita has made.
"So much of the success today from the
advertisers' standpoint and the programming standpoint is promoting a show,"
Grubbs said. "If you have a few marquee shows, as Comedy Central has proven with South
Park, you really help to establish the personality of your network."
The Net is being produced by Columbia-TriStar
Television Distribution, while Shades of Sin is produced by Alliance Communications
Corp., in association with Chesler-Perlmutter.
As for Showtime's three new planned series, the first
that MGM will develop will premiere Jan. 1, 1999, with the other two to launch each
subsequent Jan. 1 over the following two years. MGM will give Showtime five concepts to
consider for each of the new series.