USA points way to original plan

By mixing its own series with wrestling and pix, Hammer locks in No. 1 position

The USA Network is not planning any formal ceremony, but if Vince McMahon, the wrestling guru, wants to lay claim to the title “King of Cable,” USA would be his loudest cheerleader.

McMahon, head of World Wrestling Entertainment, herded his weekly two-hour “WWE Raw” — the highest-rated year-round primetime series in all of basic cable — from Spike TV to USA in October, and USA is still reaping the benefits.

During the past six months, USA has rocketed into first place, knocking off TNT, thelongtime leader, for just about every week since McMahon’s grapplers started body slamming USA’s competition for two hours every Monday night.

Wrestling may be the steroid-fueled engine that has catapulted USA to the top of the basic-cable heap, but scripted original series are the holy grail of general-entertainment cable networks, and USA can thump its chest as vigorously as any of them about its three solid hits: “Monk,” “The 4400” and “The Dead Zone.”

Just as “The 4400” and “Dead Zone” have reinforced each other as a two-hour Sunday-night block, USA will for the first time use its highest-rated original, “Monk,” as a Friday lead-in this summer to “Psych,” a tongue-in-cheek cop show about a young police consultant who solves crimes with powers of observation so acute the precinct detectives think he’s psychic.

Bonnie Hammer, topper of USA and sibling Sci Fi, says that, for the foreseeable future, original movies and miniseries will take a back seat to original series because “the movie budgets are high, and then you add another $1.5 million to market them for a one-time-only burst.”

The marketing cost of the first episode of a new series is similar, but if the series clicks, Hammer says, her eyes lighting up, USA gets a franchise that could keep paying dividends for years.

Madison Avenue is fond of USA, says Andy Donchin, senior VP and director of national broadcast for Carat, North America, because “It was a viable general-entertainment network for media buyers before it got wrestling back, and it’s even more viable now.”

Jeff Wachtel, executive VP of original programming for USA, says the network has two pilot commitments in the dramas-with-a-light-touch category: “Underfunded” deals with the Canadian Secret Service and “In Plain Sight” focuses on a government official (played by Mary McCormack) who can’t tell her family that she works for the super-secret witness-protection program.

Hammer says she’s pulling away from dark, serious drama (like the expensive 2004 “Touching Evil,” which expired after 11 episodes) in favor of dramedies.

Reality shows are also on USA’s back burner, she says, because they’re costing more money to produce, and nobody will watch the repeats.

Hammer is head-over-heels with original series and McMahon’s musclemen and –women, but the two USA scripted series that its audience watch most, week in and week out, are reruns of the successful “Law & Order” spinoffs: “Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent.” And that’s where it gets tricky: Wrestling appeals to young males, “SVU” and “Intent” to the rest of its audience, adults 25 to 54, and older. So USA has to walk a tightrope when it purchases programming, both original series, reruns and movies. For example, Jane Blaney, senior VP of programming for USA, who buys all the network’s theatrical movies, made it a point of picking up “Dukes of Hazzard” and the Bruce Willis vehicle “Hostage,” which will be mother’s milk to the wrestling crowd.

But Blaney also bought “Sweet Home Alabama,” with Reese Witherspoon, and “Bringing Down the House,” with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, which will appeal to the 25-to-54 demo, particularly women.

“Psych,” “Underfunded” and “In Plain Sight” are aimed at USA’s 25-to-54 viewers. But, because USA’s parent NBC Universal agreed to pony up $30 million a year to outbid Spike TV for the rights to “WWE Raw,” Hammer is not ignoring the wrestling junkies.

USA’s development execs are working on an action series whose goal is to “capitalize on the audience for wrestling,” she says.

One of McMahon’s star wrestlers like John Cena could take the lead role in such a series, or could join with other of his peers, both male and female, to show up in supporting parts.

Hammer also cites “eBaum’s World,” a mix of segments from the male-oriented Web site of the same name, featuring the former WWE luminary Chris Jericho as co-host. The weekly series could serve as a latenight companion to “WWE Raw.”

“We want to aim some of this development at WWE viewers,” says Hammer, “but the shows can’t be so outrageous that they alienate the core USA audience.”