DECEMBER 2009 PRIMETIME SCHEDULE:
* Bold denotes programming change
USA is extraordinarily consistent month-to-month and week-to-week, yet the network manages to keep the schedule fresh.
Off network dramas are the "white noise" that holds the network together with strips and three-hour primetime blocks. NCIS, LAW & ORDER: SVU and HOUSE fill that role. Other than that, WWE always runs on Monday nights, and preferred nights for original series were typically Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. However, a new strategy started up in January, with originals airing alone (without a companion series) at 10PM on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Movies have taken a back seat lately, with a diminished presence on the primetime line-up, although movie package purchasing is somewhat active.
DECEMBER 2009 PRIMETIME RATINGS ANALYSIS:
Live Primetime Ratings Comparison / December 2009 vs. December 2008 (% Change)
Source: The Nielsen Company's National Television Audience Sample
USA closed out 2009 by maintaining its place as the highest rated ad-supported cable network across households and key demos. The year's highlights revolved around scripted original dramas, a genre USA owned this year. Both of the new series, ROYAL PAINS and WHITE COLLAR, topped the most-watched new series list of 2009, and will be back. For the most part, returning series gained momentum. The program that started the run back in 2002, MONK, took a good-bye bow in December with record-setting ratings.
However, as you can see in the chart above, USA was not without issue this December. It is rare for the network to post bottom-line double-digit declines across the demo audiences. To give some perspective, the network did hold Monday - Sunday adult 25-54 viewers vs. November. Let's take a closer look and see what happened.
A year ago, USA was running new-to-USA seasons of HOUSE, and wherever HOUSE landed, ratings popped. So, USA ran HOUSE an astounding 57 times in December 2008 primetime, helping to propel the network to first place. Unfortunately, the program burned out, and ratings fell quickly soon after. This December, HOUSE was on the air only 6 times, and on average it delivered more than one-third lower ratings than last December. Through-out 2009 NCIS and LAW& ORDER: SVU replaced HOUSE as the primetime filler between original dramas and WWE. NCIS rose to the challenge, consistently placing among the top-tier of USA's programming, although the younger audiences of HOUSE were never reproduced. And while LAW & ORDER: SVU came back to the schedule stronger than when it left, it continues to draw a weaker male audience.
The other HOUSE replacement this month was theatricals, and they were the single-biggest reason for the ratings decline. In a big reversal this December, USA programmed 24 movies in primetime; last December there were eight, and last month there were eleven. While there were some strong titles (ELF, Sweet Home Alabama) and basic cable premieres, (Enchanted, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), a strong movie on USA does not deliver the ratings of the regular prime-time fare. None of the theatricals made the top twenty list - the best-rated titles placed 39th among households (Sweet Home Alabama) and 26th among adults 25-54 (Gone in 60 Seconds).
Of course USA's December 2009 will be remembered for the finale of long-running, brand-defining, mold-making, record-setting signature series, MONK. Heavy promotion and smart scheduling (splitting the two-part final into two weeks, repeating part one as a lead-in to part two, and following it all with a new episode of new series WHITE COLLAR) helped boost the finale to legendary levels. It drew the largest number of viewers and demos of any drama series ever on cable, a record previously held by TNT's THE CLOSER. The Hollywood Reporter put it best: "It is a fitting farewell for a series that defined USA's brand of quirky dramedies and kicked off the network's ascension to cable-ratings supremacy."
"What a perfect way for MONK, our first tentpole success, to finish its run -- going out even stronger than it came in, and helping to launch another great show, WHITE COLLAR," said USA's president of original programming Jeff Wachtel. For once, we would have to whole-heartedly agree.
CABLEU NEED TO KNOW:
It's especially challenging to break into the schedule for USA. USA is all about off-net crime procedurals, a little HOUSE, movies and WWE wrestling, plus a slew of hit original series such as BURN NOTICE, PSYCH and IN PLAIN SIGHT, and now ROYAL PAINS and WHITE COLLAR.
USA continues to lead the pack in blurring the lines between cable and broadcast. They consistently try to position themselves against the broadcast nets, and in 2008/09 they met their goal of becoming the first cable network to harvest more primetime viewers, on average, than a broadcast network. They continue to narrow the broadcast/cable gap, even during sweeps periods.
But there is always room for improvement. The network is still trying to balance its male/female skew, and the audience is aging. Younger-skewing programming would go a long way towards refreshing the network.
What network President Bonnie Hammer looks for in original series is upbeat, blue-skies action thrillers and procedurals. "We don't rule out a bit of edginess, but you won't see anything that's dark or bleak." They tend to go for strong, quirky characters and stories, rarely non-fiction.