USA Re-Enters Original Scripted-Series Arena


After a two-year hiatus, USA Network will debut two scripted original series this summer — the first in-house projects under the purview of network president Doug Herzog.

The general-entertainment service believes that dramatically themed, action-oriented shows like Dead Zone
and Monk
will help lift its overall ratings, while appealing to its core audience of 25-to-54-year-olds, said USA executive vice president of series and long-form programming Jeff Wachtel.

Part of that plan calls for the introduction of at least two more original series within the next year, as well as several miniseries projects.

Wachtel — the former head of Landscape Entertainment's series programming division, who joined USA last July — hopes the two new entries will improve upon USA's checkered original-series history. Dead Zone
(June 16) is based on the Stephen King novel; Monk (which starts next month) is about an obsessive-compulsive detective.


The network mined original-series success in the mid-1990s, with such fresh fare as Silk Stalkings
and La Femme Nikita. But under former programming president Stephen Chao's reign, from 1998 through 2001, the network failed to generate a brand-defining hit. Shows such as G vs E, Manhattan AZ
and The War Next Door
failed to resonate with the network's target audience of adults aged 25 to 54.

"The network drifted away from the core audience," Wachtel said. "You can't do a 180-degree turn and expect the audience to follow.

"We're now back in business … and looking to come up with dramatic shows that provide unique twists that appeal to our core viewers while attracting new ones."

Wachtel also said USA will spend more on these shows than its previous original series to help guarantee production values, although he would not discuss specific budgets.

"Original series are the most important way to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack and create audience loyalty, so we have to provide a high-quality product," said Wachtel.

The network will initially order 13 episodes of each series, which will allow both programs to build an audience, he said.

Wachtel would not provide specific expectations for Dead Zone
and Monk, but said they should surpass the network's 1.7 first-quarter primetime average. USA's performance was down 11 percent from last year, although its delivery of viewers aged 24 to 54 edged up 1 percent over the same span.

The network's other recent high-profile original series entries — the reality-based Combat Missions
and the late-night game show Smush
— failed to lift the network from its Nielsen Media Research malaise.

Numbers won't be the sole measure of success, though.

"If it gets decent but not spectacular ratings, but gets good critical reviews and good word-of-mouth reaction, it's done its job because people are talking about it," Wachtel said.

The network hopes to develop two more series — one slated for January 2003 and the other for later that summer — as it seeks to create an lineup of original shows to help support its planned genre-based weeknight schedule.

USA currently brands Friday nights for mysteries and Wednesdays for action fare. It's expected to launch a comedy night in the near future.


Those series will complement USA's lineup of eight to 10 original movies per year.

Though USA's telepic production slate has been scaled back from as many as 20 films per year, Wachtel said the network will spend more to develop better projects.

USA will produce four "event" movies and four to six crime-oriented telefilms, which it hopes will turn into a franchise for the service. The network will develop films based on the stories from investigative writers Ann Rule and Dominick Dunne, said Wachtel.

The network will also invest in two limited-run series, a format many broadcast and cable networks have shied away from, Wachtel said.

The first is Traffic, based on the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, Wachtel said. Also in the pipeline for potential miniseries or movies: adaptations of the 1970s police series McCloud
and the epic movie Spartacus.