USA's 'Burn' a sleeper hit

Giant helpings of media love by no means guarantee a hit TV series. In fact, on cable this summer, it’s quite the opposite.

AMC’s “Mad Men,” the period Madison Avenue drama from “Sopranos” vet Matt Weiner, has been a press fave practically since it was announced. Series kicked off with a buzzy Arianna Huffington panel in June and was all the rage at TCA last month. “Hopelessly infatuated” and “strikes a profound chord” are the kind of phrases the press has used.

But three weeks in, “Mad” has averaged about 1.2 million viewers — a number slightly below AMC’s own primetime average last month of 1.3 million viewers. In the net’s defense, the show is its first large-scale foray into scripted drama–which means its had to compete without the benefit of a series lead-in and without brand recognition as an originals net.

On the flip side, lighthearted USA actioner “Burn Notice” was quietly unrolled at the net’s upfront this spring and was barely noted at TCA. The show has no big stars and an interesting, but not hugely novel, hook: An ex-spy helps civilians in trouble.

Yet the show has quietly become one of the summer’s biggest breakouts. So far it has tripled the “Mad Men” aud, pulling in a muscular 3.6 million viewers, nearly half in adults 18-49. Last week, USA renewed the series.

How do execs explain the gap?

“Press matters, but cable is a mass medium,” says USA programming topper Jeff Wachtel. ” ‘Burn Notice’ was not a press darling before it hit the air, but like most of our stuff it earns your respect.”

With so many new cable dramas going for a darker tone–and with sitcoms like “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” and “The Bill Engvall Show” regularly notching 3 million viewers–the lesson this summer might be similar to the one at the box office: Edgy drama captivates critics, but action and comedy win with viewers.

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