USA Network Unveils American Character

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USA Network is hailing American characters.

Cable's highest-rated network has launched the "Character Project," a multipronged artistic initiative to pay tribute to people from all walks of life across the U.S. In line with its "Characters Welcome" brand, USA enlisted the support of not-for-profit photography organization Aperture Foundation to assemble 11 world-class shutterbugs to create a book, Character: A Photographic Journey, with a foreword by Tom Brokaw, released by Chronicle Books this month.

Many of the images from that work will be on display on a touring exhibition, co-hosted by Vanity Fair, beginning in New York City on March 12-14 at the Stephan Weiss Gallery and making stops in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The effort is also being supported by affiliate initiatives from Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications.
As part of a community affairs outreach, USA has created a companion curriculum to work in conjunction with the book and touring exhibition, as local schools will be able to submit their own Character Project entries to charactercontest@skiandcompany.com, with the winning photographs being exhibited publicly. All proceeds from Character Project and the book will benefit the Aperture Foundation and "Characters Unite," USA's pro-social platform dedicated to combating intolerance and promoting acceptance and understanding.
"USA is a network that celebrates characters and this is a great opportunity to capture the American character," said USA Network executive vice president, marketing, digital and brand strategy Chris McCumber. "No other network is documenting this important time in American history, with a new administration and the economic challenges, this is a pivotal moment for our nation."
The photographers include legendary artists Mary Ellen Mark, Sylvia Plachy, Dawoud Bey, Jeff Dunas, David Eustace and Eric Ogden, as well as emerging talents Marla Rutherford, Anna Mia Davidson, Joe Fornabaio, Eric McNatt and Richard Renaldi.

McCumber said Mark documented the spirit of New York festivals, parades and summer traditions in black and white, while Eustace elected to trace portraits and landscapes along the transcontinental Route 50.

"Usually, photographers get very specific assignments from clients. This was a chance for them to find American characters," said McCumber. "I thought the project would be good, but the photographic results are amazing."
Turning the lens on affiliate activities, operators receive invites to the exhibits' opening, which includes a reception and meet-and-greet with the photographers. These can be extended to local government officials -- in the case of the April 2 opening night at Edison Place Gallery that coincides with Cable Show '09 in Washington, USA has sent out letters to many members of Congress -- and VIPS, or against customer acquisition and retention efforts. Affiliates, committing to run 150 taggable promo spots to drive awareness and traffic to the exhibits that are open to the public, get their name/logo on the invites and on a "sponsor wall" at the events.
There is also a local ad sales component, including sponsorable "photographer profile vignettes." Brian Hunt, senior vice president, marketing and sales strategy, TV Networks Distribution, NBC Universal, said that with auto and financial clients feeling the economic crunch, there may be opportunities with members of the professional and medial communities to step up.
As alluded to above, the network is providing a "contest kit" to be distributed by affiliates throughout local school districts. Student winners, based on originality, creativity and presentation, will meet a featured photographer and have their photos displayed at the Character Project exhibitions and on chacteracterproject.usanetwork.com

USA is also encouraging affiliates to work with schools on field trips to bring students out to the exhibits.
"Character Project, which helps USA as a brand beyond linear TV, was designed with affiliate flexibility in mind," said Hunt. "Each market affiliate has committed to the program and can integrate the tactics they think will work best for them."

Steve Trippe, vice president, general manager of Charter St. Louis said "we plan to take advantage of the curriculum activities made available and will have high school students in the St. Louis metropolitan area participate in the digital photo contest with the winning team getting a field trip to see the exhibit," which is slated for April 30 through May 3 at Regional Arts Commission, located in one of the area's most artistically diverse neighborhoods. "We'll run PSAs promoting the events and show and co-host an opening exhibit night gallery party for community and government leaders and Charter clients."

Trippe said the project's timing is perfect.
"If you are down about the American economy and the prospects for our country, I think this artistic effort will show how resilient the American people are and will stir positive emotion - like Robert Frank's similar photographic trek across the country in the 1950s for his famous book The Americans," he said. "Who knows, one of the kids taking part in this project may become his generation's Robert Frank. I am confident that this will be a great success for USA, St. Louis, the high school students and Charter."
McCumber said USA would like to extend the project into another cultural field, perhaps film, next year. Hunt, meanwhile, said NBCU would evaluate the various elements on the affiliate side before constructing support programs going forward.
"There are a lot of tentacles here. From consumer brand extension and event awareness, to how it works from community affairs participation and affiliate levels," he said. "It's a big program and we have to evaluate a lot of elements."

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