JULY 2011 PRIMETIME SCHEDULE:
* Bold denotes programming change
USA's scheduling, like its programming, is extraordinarily consistent, making it easy for viewers to know what to expect when they tune in.
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. Premiere nights lean to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with the remainder of the schedule left to off net acquisitions and movies. Originals returned to Sunday nights this June, giving USA five nights of original programming. And Friday nights are being looked at, according to Chris McCumber. The season for original programming has expanded as well. Once relegated to the non-competitive summer months, USA has continued to successfully expand its roster of originals, with new series and new episodes running nearly all year, with just a couple of bridge months left to fill. "We want to be a network that's on all four seasons, and basically has a presence throughout the week," affirmed Jeff Wachtel.
JULY 2011 PRIMETIME RATINGS ANALYSIS:
Live Primetime Ratings Comparison / July 2011 vs. July 2010 (% Change)
Source: The Nielsen Company's National Television Audience Sample
JULY 2011: In a month with an unprecedented seven original series running on four nights of the week, USA finds itself treading water, not pulling ahead. Compared to last year, when originals were running on just three nights, bottom-line viewing for households and women is identical, while men are down almost 10%, bringing adult ratings down by 5%. Men are lagging behind vs. last month as well, but just by 5%. Why the slowdown in ratings when there is an uptick in programming? Let's take a closer look.
On Monday nights wrestling continues to dominate among men, while pulling in above average numbers for women. But this month the venerable franchise took some serious hits, dropping ratings across the board, most notably a 17% decline on men 18-49 ratings vs. July 2010. This is certainly bringing down the bottom-line, but there was more at play this month than a drop in wrestling numbers.
Original programming was in full force this month, but it is still off net programming that provides the backbone of USA's primetime. NCIS and LAW & ORDER: SVU, plus CSI this month comprised about 11 hours a week of programming, which accounts for half of the primetime line up. NCIS leads the way with 31 total hours, and its ratings were off again this month -- down 21% on men and 12% on women. LAW & ORDER usually pulls in lower ratings than NCIS, but it grew again this month, and is actually topping NCIS on women now. CSI ran just four times this July, and did not find much of an audience, placing at the bottom of the program rankers across the board,
With lackluster performances from off-net programming and wrestling, a break-out hit among the originals was needed to save the month. And while each of the originals is performing well (every one of the originals pulls in better than a 1.0 rating on women 25-54), they aren't doing particularly better than they were, and so they were not able to pull up the bottom line.
Originals are a bigger part of USA's primetime than ever, comprising seven hours a week, or one-third of the primetime inventory. In rank order by adult 25-54 ratings, USA aired new episodes for each of the five weeks in July of BURN NOTICE, NECESSARY ROUGHNESS, ROYAL PAINS, SUITS, COVERT AFFAIRS, WHITE COLLAR and IN PLAIN SIGHT.
Starting at the top, BURN NOTICE"Ëœs women 25-54 were up 3% while men 25-54 were down just 1% vs. last year. That sounds okay, until you notice the 15% growth in household ratings. Why didn't that increase translate to core demos? Let's just say BURN NOTICE's fifth season viewers aren't getting any younger. Taking a deeper look reveals more positive news. BURN NOTICE started the month slow, but built momentum each week, always a good sign for the vitality of a show. SWAMP PEOPLE on History gave BURN NOTICE some solid competition, with SWAMP PEOPLE grabbing better ratings at the beginning of the month, but BURN NOTICE took the lead by the end of the month.
USA launched two new series within a week of each other in June, and they are both going strong this July. SUITS follows BURN NOTICE at 10PM on Thursday nights, and is taking advantage of its solid lead-in, actually growing women 18-49 audiences on several nights. NECESSARY ROUGHNESS' women 25-54 ratings actually ranked #1 among all USA programming this month. The program is showing a stronger female skew than most USA originals, with a 62/38 female/male audience. (For comparison, SUITS' audience is 45% male and BURN NOTICE is 49% male) USA's only programming to skew more female than NECESSARY ROUGHNESS is LAW & ORDER: SVU and IN PLAIN SIGHT (64% female).
ROYAL PAINS, in its second year, saw the best improvements from last year with across the board growth, including a 17% bump for women 25-54. On Tuesdays, WHITE COLLAR and COVERT AFFAIRS both saw declines from last year. COVERT AFFAIRS dropped about 25% across the board, while WHITE COLLAR saw declines just under 10%.
IN PLAIN SIGHT was the seventh original on the air this July, running alone on Sunday nights after CI concluded last month. IN PLAIN SIGHT falls at the bottom of the ratings for originals, and has been officially renewed for just one last season.
The growth has stopped at USA. With steeper competition and aging programming, the network is still at the top of the cable heap, but is not climbing to new heights. Even two successful programming launches were not enough to push the net ahead. It looks like USA has maximized its ratings potential with original dramas.
Staying still is not a good strategy, and USA is planning to mix it up in the coming months.
CABLEU NEED TO KNOW:
This summer USA serves up two more new original series and six established originals across four nights each week. Add in Monday night's wrestling and only Friday and Saturday nights are off the programming plate (although Fridays are not off the table, per Chris McCumber in an interview with TVLine.) But it looks like more of the same will not be enough. With an eye on aging audiences and formulaic programming, the network that started the scripted original movement on cable is moving into comedy and reality, trying to keep their place at the top of the cable pack.
In their recent round of interviews promoting the summer line-up, network co-presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber gave some valuable insights. They are very conscious of where the programs are on the life-cycle. With mature programs such as PSYCH and BURN NOTICE, there is a need to continue to develop solid programming. While they talk about "pushing the boundaries of the brand" and avoiding cookie-cutter, formula-based dramas, the latest round of programs doesn't stray too far from the mold of complex characters aspiring to make-good. The network is very conscious of its brand and the power it holds. Chris McCumber told TVLine "When we look at the response our audience has to new shows, they already know what the brand is and they can tell us if a show fits into that brand. Even more importantly, when they hear about new show on USA, we hear them say, "ËœFrankly, I don't now much about this, but I know the brand, so I'm more likely to check it out.' That's the real opportunity for you."
Where does opportunity lie? Says Chris McCumber in TVLine, "We've been incredibly successful with scripted hours. Now it's about trying to expand the variety of programming we're doing. We're looking at reality, half hours, maybe going back to event miniseries, things USA has done well in the past." Jeff Wachtel adds that writing and casting are what the network is looking for in developing new series.
In a move announced this summer, USA will start a Public Affairs department in an effort to use the power of the media to make a difference in the lives of viewers. The unit will focus on developing and implementing all pro-social initiatives, creating cause marketing promotions tied to original programming. In concert with all units of USA, Public Affairs will continue to grow Characters Unite to include more extensive original programming, PSAs, content on charactersunite.com, grassroots outreach and legislative advocacy -- all designed to inform, support and inspire audiences to bridge cultural divides and overcome social injustices.