Chris McCumber, the New York-based co-president of USA Network, recently returned from a two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. In his first meeting back, Ted Linhart, USA’s senior vice president of research, mentioned the explosive success of competitor network TLC’s new pageant-princess reality series, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
“What the hell happened in two weeks?” McCumber wondered aloud.
It’s been a turbulent summer on television—a period that McCumber describes as “a golden age” and his Los Angeles counterpart at USA, Jeff Wachtel, describes as “the early days of the apocalypse.” Honey Boo Boo, for instance, has become a late-summer sensation, outpacing not merely Toddlers and Tiaras, the slightly more staid reality series on which Boo Boo herself first appeared, but also network coverage of the political conventions. VH1, in its continual process of reinventing itself, landed upon a major hit with Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta, while the story of the summer may have been Hatfields & McCoys, the History Channel’s first foray into scripted programming, which drew 14.3 million viewers for its final installment. That’s a fantastic number even by broadcast standards. USA’s success, and the absence of a totally off-brand show in its lineup, have been the only constants.
“Any network, no matter how small they are, can pop a huge number with a completely original idea, so everyone seems to be competition,” McCumber said in a recent joint interview with Wachtel at the USA offices in Rockefeller Center. What went unsaid was that networks such as TLC and History had radically revised their respective brands with single hits. Rare is the network with a coherent brand identity these days: AMC, for instance, followed its critically beloved Breaking Bad not with a similarly edgy drama but with the chintzy reality show Small Town Security. FX has room for both the revolutionary Louie and the regressive Anger Management.
Meanwhile, USA, the No. 1 cable network for going on seven years—and the network that has historically dominated the summer months—has not radically deviated from a strategy known as “blue skies.” McCumber described some of its elements to The Observer: “We still like to play in slick, blue sky, aspirational sort of environments.” It’s been a formula for success, one that now runs year-round: shows with well-defined, great-looking protagonists undertaking unusual lines of work in exotic locations, with a fundamental sunniness no matter the danger the characters find themselves in.
June Thomas of Slate summed up the network’s summer strategy best: “Just as we reach for lemonade rather than hot chocolate when the weather turns warm, light, bright shows appeal more than the dark, tense dramas of the main broadcast season. USA series like Burn Notice, set in Miami, and Royal Pains, in the Hamptons, are all sun, swimsuits and seersucker.” This past summer also saw new seasons of White Collar, a show about a con man turned good, and Suits, about crusading lawyers. Both are set in a sleek, glassy vision of New York.
“If you describe one of our shows in just a log line, it may seem somewhat conventional,” said Wachtel, who explained that the various shows’ “better-than-expected execution” and gradations of voice help the network escape charges of reductiveness. (Not that it’s silenced all critics: Pop-culture blog Vulture ran a slideshow last summer called “How to Create a USA Show in Six Easy Steps,” including “Make Someone a Rookie With a Desirable Area of Expertise” and “Add a Sunshine-y Locale.”) It’s worked. Both presidents cited internal research and anecdotal evidence that USA’s “overlap”—the number of viewers tuning into multiple shows and not just one favorite—is unusually high.
But there’s still room to grow, especially given the degree to which new hits help boost a network’s older shows. This summer, the sunny network ran the miniseries Political Animals, a série-à-clef about Hillary Clinton’s professional and personal life. Sigourney Weaver, as first lady–turned–Secretary of State Elaine Barrish Hammond, juggles a philandering ex-husband, a drug-using and promiscuous gay son, and a bulimic daughter-in-law-to-be as she angles for the presidency. The now-concluded run (no word on whether it will return) was certainly a fun ride, and a gradual shift in the viewer’s expectations for USA.
“I do think that there’s a time when what you’re running will get stale,” Linhart said. “This business is cyclical. Our programming is successful, but eventually it won’t be successful. It was time to take a swing, but it wasn’t zombies eating brains.”
In the midst of its success, USA has slowly been shifting its existing “blue skies” formula. “We like to say ‘many shades of blue!’” said McCumber, who oversees the network’s branding. Of an upcoming pilot, Graceland (about law-enforcement agents living together), he said, “You’re in a crack house, you’re in some pretty deep stories, but there’s a place people can go back to … it’s going to surprise the audience and challenge the audience. And, more importantly, bring in new viewers, bring in new people, increase the reach, get new people into the tent.”
Although ratings for Political Animals were lukewarm by USA standards (though it rebounded with a series-high 3.48 million viewers for the finale), the show represents a necessary evolution, not a sudden revolution, for the network of sun and fun.
One advantage was the series’ pedigree: It was created by widely respected producer Greg Berlanti, of Everwood and Brothers & Sisters. Further, it spoke to a certain zeitgeist quality that McCumber and Wachtel had been seeking. Berlanti’s pitch to the presidents, as Wachtel recalled, compared the Hammonds’ public life in politics to the private debates within families: “This is the story of the American family. The American family is broken. If you’re a Democrat, you used to have dinner with your Republican friends. You don’t talk to them anymore. There is no communication, and that is the worst. If Elaine can fix her family, we can fix our families.”
Even given the objections the pair of presidents initially felt about the show’s strong language and thematic elements (the pilot includes a character bingeing and purging at the family manse, prompting McCumber to observe, “A lot of things happen in that bathroom!”), the pitch about “fixing families” sold the network. Said Wachtel of the program’s fundamental optimism about reconciliation, “If it were an FX show or an HBO show, that would not be the agenda. And those are great networks that do great projects. But the notion of the possibility of a better world … being better, that’s not part of Breaking Bad’s success. And that’s why we wouldn’t do Breaking Bad, but we would do Political Animals.”
But while Political Animals, in its modulation between the darkness in vogue in cable and the network’s characteristic hopefulness, got largely respectful-to-mixed reviews, Breaking Bad is among the favorites at the Sept. 23 Emmy ceremony, an event at which USA series haven’t been significant players since Monk ended in 2009. “Take a look at the shows that win awards,” McCumber said. “More often than not, they’re the least-viewed shows. A very small sliver of people [are] actually watching the shows that win awards. I would rather have high ratings, high loyalty—that’s the thing that moves the business forward.”
“Ten years ago, we were certainly nobody’s first stop,” Wachtel said. “What our success has made us need to do is both have a brand filter that we can communicate who we are to the town, to all the creatives, and also force ourselves to push past it.”
The loyalty viewers feel to USA has a great deal to do with their so-called “brand filter.” As McCumber puts it: “It’s a set of directions that we like to use in order to decide if a show is going to be right for us.”
Series pitched to the network often undergo evolutions before making it to air. Aaron Korsh, creator of Suits, said that his show had originally been written as a serialized drama about Wall Street, rather than a show assaying new legal cases weekly. Jeff Eastin, creator of White Collar and now Graceland, said his first series was influenced by the dark FX drama The Shield. “It was much, much darker,” he explained. “A Vic Mackey character was serving a life in prison for killing his partner.” Both Korsh and Eastin were untroubled by the changes as part of an overall strategy. As Eastin put it, “It’s just like musicals in the 1930s: People want to have fun. It’s been a really good choice for USA. You turn on USA and you’re going to smile at least once.” Both show-runners, too, acknowledged that their shows had been allowed to grow more thematically complex over their runs.
“They’re trying to evolve beyond just the blue sky-ness. That to me is reflected in the show,” Korsh said. “It’s a darker look. The sky is not blue. It’s often cloudy!”
In order for a network to toy with its identity, it must develop a strong brand in the first place—which was not always the case at USA. The current co-presidents, promoted to their positions last year, both joined USA in 2001, before the 2004 merger that put the channel under NBC’s corporate umbrella. Their tenure began with the launch of the mystery comedy Monk and the Stephen King-derived drama The Dead Zone, both in 2002, and the return of WWE Raw to USA’s air in 2005.
Those series didn’t have a lot in common, but they were somewhat revolutionary in their way, coming at a time when scripted basic-cable programming was still very much the youngest sibling to broadcast and premium cable. “Monk and The Shield were really kind of the first two of the generation of basic-cable programming, and at that time, it was a dumb idea,” said Wachtel, paraphrasing conventional wisdom of the time. “‘Don’t even try. You can’t compete with the big boys.’” USA, which lacked the funding for special effects or large casts, landed upon “character” as an element that unified Monk, The Dead Zone and the WWE (as McCumber put it, “Vince McMahon’s stated business is the character business, not the fighting business”).
Psych, which ran alongside Monk starting in 2006 and is currently the network’s longest-running series, cemented the network’s focus on character and breezily escapist plots. Describing the effect of Monk and Psych in defining the USA brand, Wachtel said, “It had to be the kind of thing that broke through the clutter. Obsessive-compulsive detective. Fake psychic. Bam! You know what that show is.”
Upcoming series will move beyond scripted hourlong programming—USA has acquired ABC’s Modern Family for second-run broadcasting, a coup that will likely help launch planned original comedies (Linhart noted the success of The Big Bang Theory reruns in establishing TBS as a comedy powerhouse). USA is also planning reality programming, including The Choir, an adaptation of a British series about organizing singing groups in small communities. Why branch out so far beyond the brand in the long term? McCumber refers to the network as “the world’s biggest startup,” with experimentation for its own sake taking place within relatively tight parameters. Wachtel cited a Henry Ford quotation about the public desiring “faster horses” rather than the revolutionary invention of the automobile. “We do want to make the next great version of Royal Pains and Burn Notice”—USA’s versions of faster horses. But he was quick to add, “We are also in the car-making business.”
With the run of Political Animals concluded and the forthcoming launch of Graceland—which begins with a heroin deal gone bad and features a prominent character shooting up in its pilot—the amount of horsepower USA can get out of experimentation remains unclear. But it’s a bold move for a network often accused of resting on its laurels. Said Wachtel: “People have a nice, easy way into our blue sky—and then our job, and the show-runner’s job, is to maintain a complexity of that, and that is with interesting and damaged characters.”
Experimentation is one thing. But there’s little chance that USA will see its mission creep to the degree that has yielded beauty-pageant gawking on what was once known as The Learning Channel, reality stars feuding on what was once called Video Hits 1, or scripted drama on History. Perhaps the network is a sure thing, because their mission is to entertain a broad audience, without pretense. Wachtel quoted one of his executives’ favorite sayings. “We’re not HBO. We’re TV.”
“We take great pride in our work, but come on,” he elaborated. “It’s television.”