USA net plots return to top

Cabler pins hopes on summer entries

Picture this: a bingo game played with wild enthusiasm by U.S. employees of Vivendi Universal at the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, Fla., presided over by Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, and Ron Meyer, the company’s prexy and chief operations officer. Diller and Meyer got into the spirit of the game, generating particular good will among the winning employees, who collected such rewards as a vacation trip for two in the Caribbean.

The bingo game stood out as a highlight of a three-day retreat for Viv U’s staff members earlier this month.

And to Doug Herzog, president of USA Network, bingo may not be a bad analogy for the process of coming up with a hit series, which often seems to hinge on sheer luck.

“USA needs a signature show that the public can associate with the network,” says Andy Donchin, senior VP of Carat North America, another media buyer.

Kathryn Thomas, associate director of media buyer Starcom, agrees that within the broad category of general-entertainment network, USA “must craft a more definable brand identity.”

Armed with Viv U’s money, Herzog is convinced he can start to build that identity with “Dead Zone” and “Monk,” two hourlong series premiering this summer. The two are the most highly touted programs on the network since USA dominated Sunday-night cable four years ago with its original shows “Pacific Blue,” “La Femme Nikita” and “Silk Stalkings.”

The stakes are high: Upward of a billion dollars in revenues (advertising dollars and license fees from cable operators) is riding on the USA makeover.

If USA doesn’t lure more viewers over the next year or so, the jobs of both Herzog and his boss Michael Jackson, chairman and CEO of Universal Television, could hang in the balance. Diller specifically recruited Jackson from England’s Channel Four TV last July to pump life into the cable networks, the TV-syndication division and the TV-production operation.

USA is training its marketing spotlight on “Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel (made into a 1983 movie directed by David Cronenberg), which Herzog calls “a supernatural adventure series.”

Coming from Lions Gate and Paramount Intl. TV, it will play Sundays at 10, starting June 16.

“Monk” deals with a detective played by Tony Shalhoub who’s brilliant but also neurotic and obsessive-compulsive, burdened with every phobia known to man.

Herzog hopes “Monk” will do for Shalhoub and USA what “Columbo” did for Peter Falk and NBC. “Monk,” from Mandeville Films and USA Cable Entertainment, kicks off with a two-hour episode, starting in July, and the weekly hours run Fridays at 10.

What makes Herzog optimistic about the fate of the two shows is that they’ll get tons of promotion, they’ll be competing mostly with summer reruns on the broadcast networks, and they’ll benefit from powerhouse movie lead-ins, culled by USA from its extensive theatrical arsenal.

So far, advertisers are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward “Dead Zone,” “Monk” and other primetime shows.

Bob Flood, senior VP of Optimedia, says USA is smart in setting aside Friday night for crime and mystery movies as well as “Monk” episodes, and Wednesday night for action movies, a programming strategy Herzog calls “niche at night.”

Herzog says now that Universal owns 100% of USA, the network has an “advantage” in getting dibs on U’s theatricals.

“These movies will come our way as long as we’re willing to pay the price,” he says, alluding to profit participants who won’t hesitate to speed-dial their lawyers if they get just a whiff of a sweetheart deal between Universal and USA.

But with the resources of Viv U to draw on, USA will be able to pay big bucks for theatricals from Universal and two other majors that don’t own broadcast or cable networks, Columbia Pictures and MGM.

Right now, Herzog has his eye on U’s “Scorpion King” and the soon-to-open “Undercover Brother,” although there’s no deal yet.

With original movies, he plans to be more selective than in the past, when USA “churned them out on an assembly line,” as he puts it, commissioning as many as 24 a year.

The goal in 2002-03, he says, is to greenlight four event movies a year and another six or so genre movies, plus two four-hour miniseries a year. One of the minis is the costume epic “Helen of Troy,” and one of the movies is a biopic about former Gotham mayor Rudy Giuliani.

On the down side, USA’s highly touted comedy gameshow “Smush,” which Herzog was counting on to give the network a weeknight presence at 11, got off to a flying stop last December. USA had to replace it with more reruns of “JAG.”

An even bigger disappointment for USA was the 15-week “Combat Missions” reality series produced by Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) featuring four teams of trained commandos competing against each other in the Mojave Desert. The series, which started Jan. 16 at 10, flopped because “it was all guys and guns,” Herzog says. “Women refused to watch it.”

And among rerun series, the ratings of USA’s “Nash Bridges,” strategically scheduled every night at 8, are beginning to soften. The potential replacement series, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” won’t be available in five-a-week reruns until fall 2003.

Meanwhile, the depressed advertising marketplace has cut into USA’s profits. But the network is weathering the storm clouds over Madison Avenue because it harvests almost half of its total revenues from the monthly fees ponied up by cable operators, which keep going up every year.

Armed with the resources of Viv U, Herzog wants to get USA back to being No. 1 among cable networks in the primetime ratings, a position it relinquished almost two years ago to Lifetime.

“Smush” collapsed because “it was a niche program,” Herzog says. “I don’t regard USA as a niche network. ‘Smush’ was clever and small. USA is big and bold.”