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USA shows character by dropping the flag

Cabler kicks off $8 mil branding campaign

USA Network has taken an aggressive step to counter what it perceives as an identity crisis by engineering an $8 million branding campaign centered on the tagline “Characters Welcome” and giving up Old Glory.

“We’re trying to break through the clutter of a gazillion channels, where people are schlepping up and down the dial with their zappers,” said Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and its Sci Fi Channel sibling, at a gathering of reporters in New York on Monday. “The branding is an attempt to create loyalty among our viewers and get them to try us out even more than they already do.”

But Howard Nass, head of Nass-Hitzig Media, said the USA strategy “could be a waste of money. USA is a general-entertainment network — its programming is all over the place.” Nass said, as a brand, ” ‘characters’ is so broad a category that it’s practically meaningless.”

Despite the skeptics, executives from USA and parent company NBC Universal, led by Hammer and Chris McCumber, senior VP of marketing and brand strategy for USA, told reporters that “characters” cuts both ways, tying in the stars of USA’s programming schedule with the viewers who watch shows such as “Monk,” “Kojak,” Tiger Woods in a PGA match and “Nashville Star.”

“By having USA as the name of the network,” McCumber said, “we can celebrate America as a melting pot of characters.”

The art for the campaign features such images as a messenger maneuvering his bike between two trucks, a cheering fan at a ballgame and a gymnast balancing on her hands.

“To create a link between the people who watch USA and the people who come to life on our air,” Hammer said, the campaign also uses pictures of a nervous Tony Shalhoub, the title character in “Monk,” and a back-of-the-head view of Ving Rhames as “Kojak,” holding the character’s trademark lollipop.

And the flag that was a prominent part of the previous USA logo has disappeared, a victim of the political polarization that has turned the Republican and Democratic parties into warring camps. As Hammer put it, “One of the things we kept hearing in our focus groups was: ‘Ditch the flag.’ “

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