Q&A: USA Network’s Chris McCumber Talks New Shows, More WWE and VOD Experiments

USA Network is in the midst of a major brand re-think led by president Chris McCumber. More sports, more WWE, more original dramas and more zeitgeist-y drama within those original series are key items on USA’s agenda for 2015.

McCumber in his team are also donning lab coats to experiment with new ways of making shows available on air and online in an effort to get the biggest bang for all the bucks they’re pouring in to programming. McCumber spoke with Variety in his office at 30 Rock last week about the body-and-fender work underway at USA.

You’ve been very vocal about trying to find a new breed of original USA drama series. What are you looking for?

This is an evolution. The goal now is to evolve our characters to better reflect what’s going on in society now. We’ve gone through a huge demographic shift where the 18-49 audience is now a millennial majority. It’s something you have to keep in mind. The millennials are now in their 30s. We’re focusing on an audience that has a shared set of values: Hope, optimism, self-reliance, perseverance, courage. You’ll find the characters at the center of our stories are these unexpected heroes, fascinating heroes who are triumphing against all odds. Our new show “Mr. Robot” is about one of the most unexpected heroes we’ve ever had.

You’ve spoken about the importance of live programming, with NHL playoff games coming to your air for the first time in 30 years and another night of WWE starting next year. Is this an effort to field DVR/VOD-proof programming?

WWE is such an iconic American brand, it feels thematically right to have their two biggest properties on USA Network. Having more live programing is a good thing for this network. Having “SmackDown” and doubling down on WWE is important to us. Partnering with NBC Sports Group to bring Stanley Cup playoff hockey to USA is important move for us. You’ll likely see over the next year more announcements about live sports on USA.

What does it do for you? Are you worried that the non-WWE sports audience will only come for games?

(Live sports) helps increase the reach of the network. You have a brand-new audience coming to you and one that is a very passionate audience. Right now one of the most important things to do in media is to find passionate niches of fans, whether it’s in sports or original programing, and program and market to them. The NHL and WWE have some of the most passionate fan bases out there. It really grows the whole pie for us.

USA like other established entertainment cable networks are feeling the squeeze of viewers embracing time-shifting options. How are you adapting?

Time-shifting, VOD, OTT and all of that actually brings up great opportunities for experimentation and innovation. I look at VOD as being something that can help us. If we can begin looking at a new windowing strategy, you can really raise the ratings and bring in new C3 revenue, and expose the audience to your shows in new ways that they never had before. If you’re not experimenting and innovating you’re going to ultimately die. … One of the biggest goals is to increase the amount of original hours we have, and specifically the amount of content that we own. If you own the content you have control over how it gets windowed and how it gets monetized. The best content will always win, we’re still going to partner with outside studios. All the people we’re in business with are understanding that you’ve got to be open-minded to these other platforms.

You’re doing that with the second season of comedy “Playing House,” which will make some episodes available on VOD prior to linear airings. How did you come up with the plan for this show?

It’s a little bit of old school (marketing) intertwined with multiplatform. It’s a way to take advantage of a property that has done very well for us linearly and had a very dedicated audience on VOD — a very young and wealthy audience. We think having both of those platforms working in tandem together will help us take advantage of it. We’ll have sponsors across both of those platforms and we’ll do customized content (for VOD) with (stars) Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham. Jess and Lennon can take anything and make it seem really funny. We think this will be a great way to experiment and possibly raise the ratings for the show.

Would you consider making an entire season’s worth of episodes available on VOD all at once a la Netflix?

We’re looking at a lot of things on the VOD side. We’re looking at the what-if of trying to premiere the episode on linear and then putting up all of the episodes on VOD, so you can do a linear and a binge watch. You might do a reduced commercial load on linear to entice people to watch live but for those who want to get involved and watch every episode it will be up there (on VOD) for you. Could that be a good opportunity to have an advertiser sponsor both platforms and get people hooked into the show? Another model we’re looking at is airing consecutive nights of linear and then right after it all goes to VOD.

What are the downsides for you in putting more content on VOD versus a traditional series rollout?

We have to think differently about what a traditional rollout is. In the past the big concern would be, are you going to hurt the linear rating? Of course you always want to maintain and grow linear but you also have to figure out how to grow in the non-linear world and the only way to do that is to try these new windowing strategies and see what results you get. We had some great results with “Dig” on VOD — a massive amount of our L3s came from VOD. It is proof right there that if you can market the product in the right way and window it in  the right way, people are ultimately going to get hooked on it. The genie’s out of the bottle. Time-shifted viewing is the way of the world, so why not try to figure out a way to take advantage of it.

“Dig” was a big investment for you but the live ratings have been soft, by USA standards. How do you feel about it?

We think it’s been phenomenal for us. We like the big event nature of it. We have a very dedicated audience in linear, VOD and L3. We think it’s a fantastically well done show creatively. It’s a great show for the network because it’s showing we are taking the big swings we need to take. And we’re beating all of our C3 estimates with “Dig,” but of course we don’t know that until two weeks after each episode airs.

Is that frustrating to you?

This time (in the industry) reminds me of when I started at a little network called Ha which became Comedy Central. It reminds me of those days, just on a bigger level. Back then we weren’t even measured so the challenge was, how do we get as much attention as possible. Nowadays it’s the same thing. Trying things in a different way is the name of the game. The future of this network is growing more original programming, owning those original content hours as much as possible and bringing more live into the mix.

How do you feel about your investment in “Modern Family” reruns? You had been going full-throttle at developing original comedies on the back of “Modern Family” but then you pulled back. Is the show still as important to you now?

“Modern Family” has brought in a young audience. It’s aged the network down significantly. It’s brought in an incredibly rich audience and an incredibly loyal audience. We use it in primetime and also as a latenight block which gives us the chance to increase our revenue in that daypart. It’s been a tremendous asset for us.

Are you reconsidering a dive back into scripted comedy development?

The focus of our network is on scripted dramas. That’s our core. We like what we have in the comedy-reality arena with “Chrisley Knows Best.” We’re looking to double down on Chrisley with two pilots — one is a post-“Chrisley” latenight talkshow with Todd. The other is a (planted) pilot that would follow the Chrisley kids as they leave the nest, and rumor has it Todd will go with them. We are excited about the show (“Donny!”) we have coming up with Donny Deutsch where he plays a talkshow host. He’s surrounded by real actors. They have lines, he improvises. He brought it to us as an 18-minute reel and we loved it. It opens up an entirely way to integrate advertising — it’s back to old-school, in-show pitch tactics.

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