Reborn in the USA

Herzog's slate helps plump up cabler's ratings

Doug Herzog is a happy man: After suffering through a lean 2001 — “when,” as he put it, “we had almost nothing to put on the air” — the USA Network prexy is pumped up about the cabler’s sizzling summer.”The Dead Zone” and “Monk,” the first two series that bear Herzog’s stamp, are chalking up powerhouse ratings.

In its first five weeks, “Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel, is averaging a gaudy 3.5 rating in cable homes, which translates into 4.8 million viewers.

No other scripted series in the history of basic cable has ever harvested anywhere near as high a rating after five weeks on the air.

The two-hour pilot of “Monk,” with Tony Shalhoub as a detective beset by an arsenal of crippling phobias, kicked off July 12 by chalking up a 3.5 rating in cable homes, landing it in the top 10 among all basic-cable shows for the week in households, adults 18 to 49 and adults 25 to 54.

The stress on hourlong melodramas is an attempt by Herzog, who took over 15 months ago, to return to USA’s high-rated mid-1990s salad days. That’s when such Sunday-night firstrun staples as “Pacific Blue,” “Silk Stalkings” and “La Femme Nikita” brought home the bacon.

As president of entertainment for USA at the time, Rod Perth shepherded the original-series strategy. But in 1997, Barry Diller installed his protege Stephen Chao as head of programming.

Chao canceled Perth’s bellwether series but failed to come up with workable replacements, instead concentrating on TV movies and miniseries.

Bad luck also played a part in Chao’s downfall: USA lost its highest-rated weekly series, the Monday-night two-hour extravaganzas produced by World Wrestling Entertainment after a winning lawsuit brought by Viacom. TNN, Viacom’s general-entertainment network, ended up with the wrestling contract.

In March 2001, Diller brought in Herzog, whose previous jobs included prexy of entertainment for the Fox Network, prexy of Comedy Central and exec VP of programming for MTV.

Herzog became a cheerleader for original series, helping one of his programming execs, Jackie Lyons, to resuscitate “Monk,” which had originated as a pilot for ABC.

Herzog also jumped at the chance to pick up the UPN-rejected “Dead Zone” pilot because “supernatural dramas like ‘The Sixth Sense’ have mass appeal, and the Stephen King name resonates with a wide audience.”

At the rate both “Dead Zone” and “Monk” are going, along with Herzog-inspired pickups such as the two-hour “AFI Tribute to Tom Hanks,” which chalked up a better-than-expected 3.1-million households on June 24, USA may climb above the $421 million in ad revenues that Kagan World Media has projected for 2002. That target is a decline from the $453 million USA racked up from advertisers in 2001.

USA is more dependent on ad revenues because its income from monthly cable-operator license fees — a projected $402 million in 2002, according to Kagan — is hundreds of millions of dollars below that of competitors like ESPN, Disney Channel and TNT.

And USA’s programming expenses are among the highest in the cable industry, with “Monk” and “Dead Zone” each costing about $1.5 million an hour, which is way up at the top for basic cable.

USA has to pay big bucks for these shows, Herzog says, “because viewers will judge ‘Monk’ and ‘Dead Zone’ just they way they do a show on CBS or HBO.” If the production values of the USA shows slip below broadcast or upper-tier cable quality, he’s convinced that people will stop watching.

USA will lay out well over $100 million in the next year for original shows, ranging from miniseries like “Helen of Troy” and “The Crusades” to crime movies adapted from the work of novelists like David Balducci and Nevada Barr.

“We’re not a niche independent network,” says Michelle Ganeless, exec VP and general manager for USA. “We’re all about broad, mainstream programming, targeted to adults 25 to 54.”

USA’s strategy, she adds, is to commission more scripted movies and series than its general-entertainment competitors such as TBS, TNT, FX and TNN.

One of the reasons for the original-programming binge is that USA’s two biggest rivals, TBS and TNT, are much more aggressive in buying off-network sitcoms and dramas, as well as theatrical movies in their first network windows.

USA continues to buy some off-net series like “JAG” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and it will spring for first-window theatrical movies such as “Scorpion King” and “Training Day.”

Known commodities like these “can get the train rolling” as a promotional vehicle for USA’s original shows, many of which are anything but known commodities, Herzog says.

And the originals are sizzling this summer.

“Monk” and “Dead Zone” are “well-produced shows that have the same touch and feel as anything on a broadcast network,” says Lynne Buening, a cable-programming consultant and former head of programming for Falcon Cable TV.

In contrast to his recent predecessors at USA, Herzog “represents clear, straight-forward management,” Buening says. “And with a couple of potential signature shows in its lineup, USA is sure flexing its muscles.”

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