Cabler brings acquired, homegrown comedies to lineup

For USA Network, 2013 is a laughing matter.

While upbeat and action drama series have given the NBC-Universal cabler No. 1 status in the 18-49 demo and total viewers for the last several years, network execs know that in a highly competitive landscape, remaining stagnant means that rivals — think TNT, FX, A&E and History — will eventually catch up. That’s why the cabler is diving in to the comedy biz in a big way as it preps to greenlight an original laffer (or two) to complement its high-priced acquisition of rerun rights to “Modern Family.”

For years, co-presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber have talked about mixing up genres, bringing in series that may challenge core auds’ expectations of USA but will prove beneficial down the line.

“We’re being proactive,” Wachtel told Variety from the Television Critics Assn. tour in Pasadena. “We have been talking about building our portfolio for a number of years, and now we’re doing it.”

USA has ponied up a whopping $1.5 million per episode for off-network rights to “Modern Family,” which is set to debut Sept. 1. The USA toppers’ goal is to turn the ABC hit into the launchpad for an original series, similar to what “The Big Bang Theory” has done for USA rival TBS. “‘Modern Family’ is going to give us a new audience and a big leg up in terms of launching half-hour series,” McCumber said.

Two pilots are in the mix to complement “Modern Family,” though they likely won’t be paired right away: “Paging Dr. Freed,” a Fox 21 project about two brothers who inherit their father’s medical practice, from writer Michael Feldman, and “Sirens,” co-written by Denis Leary, about a group of Chicago EMTs. Fox Television Studios will produce.

There is a sense the net is leaning toward “Sirens,” and the decision is expected to be made in the near future. If “Sirens” is given the series order, “Paging Dr. Freed” could still be greenlit at a later date.

Media analyst Derek Baine of SNL Kagan said finding a homegrown sitcom that works on basic cable can be a tricky proposition. “It seems that comedies are a lot harder to catch on compared to dramas,” he said. “There’s not a huge pool of natural talent that can do comedy.”

Meanwhile, the net is also shifting into the reality space with three new series set to premiere in 2013. “The Moment,” where people are given a second chance in life and work, will launch first. There’s also “The Choir,” which serves to transform and unite communities with music, and “Partners in Crime,” about criminal defense attorneys.

Brad Adgate of Horizon Media said: “You have to continue to grow and reinvent yourself. All the program competition that has impacted the broadcast networks are now impacting the top-tier cable networks.”

Wachtel said that USA continues to be open to working with all studios, but to maximize long-term profits from its series, the net must try to stay inhouse with Universal Cable Prods. “Our job is to find the best stuff where we can, but in this environment, we’re much more aware of ownership going forward,” he said. “We’re in the business of building assets and want to monetize content.”

Though the network is keen on finding new viewers with series that weren’t in the old USA playbook, it’s not leaving its drama comfort zone by any means. Net officially renewed “Necessary Roughness” for a third season on Monday and will premiere Jeff Eastin’s “Graceland” in the summer. And “Suits” continues to be a ratings force.

Eastin, who is also the creator of hit “White Collar,” knows the stakes are high as he seeks to deliver another solid performer to the network. Casting, he said, is key.

“There’s definitely pressure,” he said. “The one thing I learned from ‘White Collar’ was to cast it right. Once you get a cast right, you just try to maintain the world that you’ve created in a pilot.”

Show, about federal agents who share a beachfront home in Southern California, may be a bit darker than other USA fare, a move seen as necessary in a world where edgy skeins such as FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” are drawing large auds.

“Graceland” will be far less procedural than most other USA series, which the network hopes means more viewers who believe they can’t miss an episode to stay on top of the storyline.

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