Cabler projects aura of stablity after Peacock merger

Come one, come all, to USA.

The general-entertainment cable network rejects trying to shoehorn its wide-ranging mix of shows into one catch-all label.

It’s a strategy that’s working. In the last two months, USA has chalked up double-digit growth in total viewers, adults 18 to 49 and adults 25 to 54.

Bolstered by these numbers, USA execs feel confident that NBC is not planning to throw everything out and start from scratch when it takes over the USA network in the spring on completion of the NBC-Universal merger.

“The NBC team of Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin is too smart to repeat the mistakes of Disney when it took over ABC Family and started to use it as a dumping ground for ABC shows,” says Ray Solley, who runs the Solley Group, which packages series for cable networks.

Gaspin is exec VP of alternate series, specials, longform and program strategy for NBC, president of Bravo and the executive who’ll add the presidency of USA to his duties, displacing Doug Herzog, who will soon take over as head of Comedy Central.

USA has built its rating success on scripted series (“Monk,” “The Dead Zone”), ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies (like “D.C. Sniper” and “Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story”), fresh theatrical movies and reruns of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

USA’s boast is that it’s now in a neck-and-neck race with TNT for the No. 1 seed among general-entertainment cable networks.

“Don’t mess with success” will be the rallying cry of USA execs. But Gaspin may also have a practical reason for not going bananas and repurposing lots of NBC primetime series on USA to fill the remaining time slots, says Russ Kagan, a veteran international TV sales exec.

“Based on the last union contracts,” Kagan says, “the residuals are higher for repurposed shows. USA would have to pay a lot more to cover these costs than it does now” for the same-week repeats of Universal’s “Special Victims Unit” (Friday at 11 p.m.).

But reality shows are not included under those residual deals so Kagan says don’t be surprised if reruns of “The Apprentice,” the runaway NBC hit featuring Donald Trump, start turning up on USA.

USA will also get the inside track on buying the five-a-week (or more) reruns of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” although the network will have to pony up the marketplace price, which could climb to as high as $1.5 million an episode based on the rerun track record of “Law & Order” on TNT and “Special Victims Unit” on USA.

And last week NBC administered a booster shot to USA’s morale by designating it the cable home of the U.S. Olympic team for 2004 and three subsequent Olympics. NBC added that during the Games themselves, USA will also gets its hands on some high-visibility events.

USA is in line to piggyback on other NBC sports programming, which would fit neatly into USA’s over-all goal of “appealing to a broad-based audience of adults 25 to 54,” says Michele Ganeless, the cabler web’s EVP and general manager. “We’re not trying to go out on the edge. I’ll let other networks push the envelope on sex and violence.”

With, ahem, at least one exception: On March 29, “Call Me: The Rise & Fall of Heidi Fleiss,” with Jamie-Lynn DiScala (nee Sigler, of “The Sopranos”) as the Hollywood madam, makes its debut on USA as a docudrama. It’s directed by Charles McDougall, who helmed the far raunchier British version of “Queer As Folk.”

USA has already ignited the marketing machine for “Call Me,” and cable subscribers are marking their calendars.

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