Ciao to USA’s Chao

Cable prexy ankles as Jackson takes reins

NEW YORK — Stephen Chao has resigned his post as president of USA Cable after four years of supervising the USA Network, the Sci Fi Channel and three other 24-hour program services.

USA has positioned the move as a logical outgrowth of the company’s decision three months ago to announce the hiring of British TV executive Michael Jackson as president and CEO of USA Entertainment, reporting to Barry Diller, chairman-CEO of USA.

Diller has given Jackson responsibility not only for USA Cable but for the company’s two other entertainment divisions: Studios USA, led by David Kissinger and Steve Rosenberg, which produces and distributes TV movies and series, and USA Films, presided over by Scott Greenstein, which produces and distributes theatrical movies.

USA will not replace Chao; the three executives who formerly reported to him — Doug Herzog, president of USA Network; Bonnie Hammer, prexy of Sci Fi; and Patrick Vien, president of emerging networks such as Trio, Newsworld and Crime — will report directly to Jackson, who officially begins work on Monday.

Sources said Chao was bored and frustrated at spending so much of his time on the administrative details attendant on running a five-network bureaucracy. With his contract due to expire soon, Chao decided not to renew so he can get back into production.

Chao had a mixed track record at USA Cable, dismantling such long-running USA Network original series as “Pacific Blue” and “La Femme Nikita” but failing to come up with successful replacements.

He continued USA’s policy of commissioning high-octane original movies like “Return to Cabin by the Lake” and “They Nest,” and miniseries like “Attila the Hun,” which generated sizable audiences in their primetime runs. Chao also kept alive USA’s blueprint of bidding for the first network windows of heavily promoted theatrical movies such as “The Waterboy” and “The Jackal.”

Lost grapple grip

USA regularly finished ahead of its cable-network competitors in primetime during the first couple of years of Chao’s presidency but lost its lead in October 2000 when the World Wrestling Federation declined to renew its programming deal with USA, taking its high-rated weekly series to Viacom’s cable networks TNN (“Monday Night Raw”) and MTV (“Sunday Night Heat”).

At Sci Fi, Chao encouraged the network to buy and commission more original series than any other cable network, with “Farscape,” “The Invisible Man” and “Crossing Over With John Edward” the best performing so far. But the network still averages below a 1 rating in primetime and rarely winds up among the top 10-rated cable networks in any given week.

In a statement, Chao lauded Diller’s strategy to get USA Network and Sci Fi to work more closely with the TV and film production divisions of USA Entertainment.

In the Chao announcement, USA Entertainment also juggled the titles of two executives. Adrienne Becker moved from VP of corporate communications for USA Networks to VP of operations for the entertainment group. Michael Bonner shifted from VP of business development for Studios USA to VP of strategic planning for the group.

Chao joined USA Cable in April 1998 after five years as head of his own company, which produced programs for a number of broadcast networks and major studios, as well as launching Playboy TV in Latin America and Locomotion, a 24-hour animation channel.

For nine years before that, Chao filled various posts at News Corp., developing such long-running hits as “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops.”

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