JANUARY 2011 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 comprise the white noise that holds the network together with strips and three-hour primetime blocks. NCIS and LAW & ORDER: SVU typically fill that role. HOUSE has had less success at the job, and goes on and off the primetime schedule.
Other than that, WWE always runs on Monday nights. The network has been playing with premiere nights for its originals. Premiere nights lean to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with last year's strongholds of Fridays and Sundays left to off net acquisitions and movies. USA's second big season this year is November through March, with spring and fall acting as bridge months.
Movies still have a back seat on USA, with a diminished presence on the primetime line-up, although movie package purchasing is somewhat active, and the genre and its younger demos remain relevant to the network's overall strategy.
JANUARY 2010 PRIMETIME RATINGS ANALYSIS:
Live Primetime Ratings Comparison / January 2011 vs. January 2010 (% Change)
Source: The Nielsen Company's National Television Audience Sample
JANUARY 2011: USA kicked off the new year with a slow start. The net drew its lowest household ratings since August 2008, when The Olympics were in play. The demo story is not quite as dire, with original programming helping to bring in younger audiences, but still, bottom line adult 25-54 ratings were 23% lower than last year, and 17% lower than last month.
A glance at the typical comparisons shows nothing working for USA. Compared to both last year and last month core adult 25-54 ratings are down every night of the week, with the lone exception of a 9% improvement on Sunday nights vs. 2010. Every returning program vs. both last year and last month shows declines on the demo, most of them in the double-digit territory.
Three original dramas entered the schedule in the second half of January, helping to stem the tide. But the wave of older-skewing acquired network programming (NCIS, LAW & ORDER: SVU, CSI and HOUSE) and lower-rated movie fare washed over the stand-outs and flattened out any spikes the originals achieved. There were 17 movie titles falling within primetime this month, and their average adult 25-54 ratings were down by over one-third vs. last year and last month. Acquired network series dominated the line-up, comprising just over half of USA's primetime air. NCIS leads the pack with 28 telecasts this month, and high ratings, but it was off its December game by about 20% on the 25-54 demo. The rest of the off-net programs performed below average, and they each drew more than their fair share of older women to the net.
The original dramas on the air this January were WHITE COLLAR, ROYAL PAINS and FAIRLY LEGAL. The media press picked up on the fact that WHITE COLLAR and ROYAL PAINS underdelivered their previous seasons, but excused the declines because the previous seasons ran in the better-watched summer months. This explanation kind of ignores the fact that there were three originals airing in January 2010 as well (WHITE COLLAR, BURN NOTICE and PSYCH), and that WHITE COLLAR dropped 20% of its audience vs. January 2010. Or that the average of the new episodes running last year topped the average of the new episodes running this year by close to 20%. The press does acknowledge the Snookie-factor on Thursday nights (but again, this does not explain WHITE COLLAR's Tuesday night decline).
This does mark the first time USA premiered a new program in January, with FAIRLY LEGAL "luring in 3.9 million viewers for its Thursday debut" according to USA. LEGAL was below the network's average for a series premiere. (WHITE COLLAR and IN PLAIN SIGHT premiered with 5.3 million viewers each in October '09 and June '08, and COVERT AFFAIRS debuted with 4.9 million viewers this past July). USA attributes the lower performance to seasonal timing. They also point out that it is the "the most successful scripted hour to launch this year to date among P25-54, total viewers, and households" in a field of....three?
However the numbers are spun, the trend we have been reporting continues... USA is looking to find a new formula that will help it keep its number one position.
CABLEU NEED TO KNOW:
The rocky start to the new year indicates just how prescient network programmers were in recognizing the need to remain fluid in their programming mission.
Not content to let its successful blue-skies formula slowly fade, USA continues to push itself to maintain its leadership position. The six new dramas that received pilot orders represent an evolution of the USA brand. (The programs are EDEN, WILD CARD, OVER/UNDER, COMMON LAW, NECESSARY ROUGNESS and A LEGAL MIND). In addition, comedy and reality are about to hit the primetime line-up. Beyond wrestling reality program TOUGH ENOUGH, USA has announced they could get a new reality show on air by the end of this year or first quarter 2012.
A big step towards change was taken with the hiring of Heather Oleander, who was named SVP Alternative Programming in February. She was previously VP for Programming Development with CBS. Jeff Wachtel said it's important that USA's upcoming reality fare be distinctive. "I know it will be an interesting needle to thread," he explained "We want to be true to our aspirational brand filter, but you want to be noisy enough to cut through the clutter."