Chao to top USA Cable

Brenner to move to USAi

USA Networks has elevated Stephen Chao to president of USA Cable, making him responsible for programming, marketing, ad sales, finance and administration for the USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel.

Chao joined USA and Sci Fi in April 1998 as co-prexy of USA Networks (which on Thursday was officially redubbed USA Cable), focusing his energies on programming and marketing. Sharing the title with Chao was Stephen Brenner, at the time a 16-year veteran of USA, who was tapped to deal with all the other areas outside programming and marketing.

In a new role, Brenner will move to USAi, the parent company, where he’ll serve as senior VP of affiliate distribution, working on the continuing negotiations with cable operators for carriage not only of USA and Sci Fi but of the Home Shopping Network, which USA also owns.

“Distribution is a key to this company’s success,” Brenner said, “and I’ve always spent a lot of time on it in my previous role.” He said he’ll also evaluate outside cable networks that USAi is looking to buy in order to make the company bigger, helping it to compete with such media giants as Time Warner, Walt Disney and Viacom/CBS.

The company is positioning Chao’s upgrade by USAi president and chief operating officer Barry Baker as a reward for USA’s continued position as the No.-1 rated network in primetime. Indeed, USA has widened the gap in recent months over rivals like TBS, TNT, Nickelodeon and Lifetime.

But USA faces the loss of its highest-rated series, the two-hour Monday-night World Wrestling Federation matches, to Viacom/CBS, which is negotiating to purchase WWF rights for a competing cable network, TNN, to kick off as early as September.

To counter that dire possibility, USA has ramped up development of original series, movies and miniseries and bought such off-net shows as “Nash Bridges,” “Martin” and “Living Single.”

On a slightly smaller scale than USA, Sci Fi is also on a roll. (USA reaches 77.2 million households, Sci Fi just over 60 million.) Sci Fi’s primetime ratings climbed by 14% in 1999, and the web is now scheduling a record number of original weekly series. Sci Fi’s subscriber total has jumped by more than 7 million in the last year.

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