USA strives to stay on top with dramas

Cable channel announces pilot scripts in pipeline

When you’re No. 1, the only place to go is down.

That’s the dilemma for USA Network — and one its competitors wishes it was forced to deal with — as the cabler announced Monday a handful of pilot scripts in its pipeline for 2010-11. USA just finished the first quarter of the year as the top ad-supported cable entertainment net for its 15th consecutive quarterly win.

“We’re walking the line between true to our brand, building on our success and pushing the envelope,” president of original programming Jeff Wachtel told Daily Variety. “We don’t want to be sitting in our lead. We want to find the next great thing.”

The announced new script pilots going forward will be hourlong dramas with comedy elements included, as has been USA’s winning recipe.

After launching one new series a year, net is set expand its delivery, launching a pair of dramas in 2010: “Covert Affairs” will debut in summer and “Facing Kate” begins in the fall. “Covert Affairs” stars Peter Gallagher and Piper Perabo as CIA agents while “Facing Kate” stars former “Life” thesp Sarah Shahi as a legal mediator.

All projects, except “The Velvet Hammer,” are inhouse and come from the net’s own Universal Cable Prods., as USA looks to double down on the back end if any or all of the shows go forward and see significant traction.

Wachtel said that although dramas have been USA’s meal ticket so far, he’s open to looking at new possibilities in the future.

“We are thinking about a bunch of new things and new genres,” he said. “Action shows that will have a more guy appeal, and we’re starting early discussions on how we could do a half-hour and reality show.”

Among the pilot scripts announced by the net Monday:

  • Steve Carell, Thom Hinkle and John Michael Higgins (“Best in Show”) are set to exec produce a skein about a character named Bob Welch, an insurance investigator who searches for high-stakes drama. Higgins writes with Margaret Welsh, also an EP.

  • “A Legal Mind,” from writer Aaron Korsh (“The Deep End”), examines a twentysomething slacker who has a keen sense for the law. Korsh, David Bartis and Gene Klein exec produce.

  • From exec producer-creator Becky Hartman Edwards, “Robyn” is the story of a woman who redistributes wealth after her father’s fraudulent financial dealing are exposed.

  • An untitled skein from writer Gay Walch and exec producer Burrad Marsh looks at a suburban mom whose husband has left town because he was in deep with the mob. His wife decides to work for the mob as well to pay off debts.

  • “Stick” is the story of a professional hockey player who has a penchant for fighting, goes to anger management classes and decides to use his enforcer qualities to help those who can’t get justice from the law. Mark Altman and Steve Kriozere are writers-exec producers while Steve Stark and Russ Buchholz also exec produce.

  • Writers Mark and Robb Cullen are penning a skein based on two brothers who are FBI agents whose work ethics are vastly different. Dave Broome, Steven Burnett, Jim Clemente, Tim Clemente and Aaron Kaplan also exec produce.

  • “The Velvet Hammer,” produced in association with CBS Television Studios, tells the story of a divorced FBI agent who’s a former Texas debutante with two kids. Gail Gilchriest and Kevin Murphy are the writers while former “ER” star Anthony Edwards and Cheryl Dolins exec produce.

New episodes of returning series “Burn Notice” and “Royal Pains” will air on USA in June. “White Collar” and “Psych” come back in July.

“Burn Notice” averaged 6.35 million viewers overall in the first quarter, making it the most-watched cable series on the air.

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