'Monk,' 'Burn Notice,' 'Psych' drive success

In the world of ad-supported cable these days, there’s USA Network … and there’s everybody else.

USA began flexing its muscles big time when it finished a strong No. 1 in total primetime viewers among cable nets in 2006, beating second-place TNT by 9%. A year later, USA’s lead had ballooned to 17% over TNT, again the runner-up. USA also came in first each of the two years in the key adult demos (18-49, 25-54 and 18-34), though the margins were much narrower.

But this turned out to be merely a jumping-off point: As the summer TV season winds to a close, USA has locked in a bigger primetime lead over its closest rival during a summer than any other first-place network in the history of basic cable.

In total viewers, USA will crush TNT by 29%. USA’s lead over TNT is 30% in adults 25 to 54, and also 30% over TBS in the 18-to-49 demo.

The biggest reasons for USA’s summer of Nielsen dominance are the network’s five highest-rated scripted originals: “Burn Notice,” “Monk,” “In Plain Sight,” “Psych” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” each averaging well over 4 million viewers.

If there’s a common denominator among these shows, says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive VP of the media buyer Starcom, it can be summed up as “drama with a light touch.” Even “Criminal Intent,” which is mostly pretty serious stuff, is about to lighten up with a new cast member, Jeff Goldblum, who’ll add his own brand of eccentricity to crime-solving.

USA’s success-to-failure ratio for scripted series is the envy of the industry. Since 2003, the network has launched seven shows that became hits and only two that got cancelled in the middle of their rookie year. In choosing a series, Bonnie Hammer, who runs USA in her role as president of cable entertainment for NBC Universal, says she and her staff — including Jeff Wachtel, executive VP of original programming, and Jane Blaney, exec VP of program acquisitions & scheduling — “go with our gut.”

Rich Frank, co-chairman of the Firm and former president of the Walt Disney Studios, says he’s having fun co-exec-producing “Royal Pains,” the pilot of a proposed series for USA, which starts shooting in New York in a few weeks. “Royal Pains” deals with a skilled M.D., played by Mark Feuerstein, who ends up as a concierge doctor to a community of wealthy inhabitants of the Hamptons.

“I like ‘Royal Pains’ because it’s not your standard medical-procedural show or typical hospital show,” Hammer says.

Another hot series project at USA, Fox TV Studios’ “White Collar,” a cast-contingent pilot, will try to capture some of the spirit of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie “Catch Me if You Can.”

“It’s a contemporary buddy piece,” Hammer says. “There’ll be two main characters, a brilliant thief of thieves who’s elegant, not sleazy, and a straight-arrow, Midwestern FBI man.”

If “Royal Pains” and “White Collar” wind up with series orders, USA could have a record eight scripted series in production. Bill Cella, former head of Magna Global who runs his own media-buying shop, says USA is beginning to look more and more like a broadcast network, featuring scripted originals on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, plus a different kind of scripted series every Monday — Vince McMahon’s high-rated two-hour wrestling extravaganza “WWE Raw.”

Jason Kanefsky, senior VP of the Media Planning Group division of Havas, says it’s about time USA started going head-to-head with the broadcast networks. Compared with NBC, which pulled in only about $100 million in profits last year, USA racked up a cool $611 million, according to SNL Kagan.

And USA’s profit margin of 45.5% in 2007 was not massively higher than the industry average for cable networks (35.3%). A big reason basic cable is channeling tidal waves of money is that it swims in two revenue streams: ad revenues and license fees from cable operators and satellite distribs. Broadcast networks have to make do with only ad revenues.

USA is on target to harvest more viewers in 2008 than the CW, which would be the first time a cable network beat a broadcast network for a full calendar year.

However Kanefsky says, “That’s not very impressive.” He adds that USA shouldn’t break out the champagne and party hats until it’s knocking off the big boys, including ABC, CBS, Fox and, yes, NBC itself.

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