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USA Counts On ‘Modern Family’ To Draw Wider Crowd

NBCU cabler wants top comedy to spark new viewership and broaden its program mix

The next time Phil Dunphy cracks a bad pun on “Modern Family,” it could mean big dollars for USA.

Tune in to the NBCUniversal-owned cabler and chances are you might see something a little dark: a scene from the sometimes-morbid “Law & Order: SVU” or the determined pursuit of a national threat on “NCIS.” In days to come, the network is prepared to offer something different: laughter.

On Sept. 24, USA begins to air 9 hours a week of “Modern Family,” the 20th Century Fox-produced comedy that has been a ratings and ad-sales bright spot at ABC. On USA, the genre has been in short supply: the last time the network showed an acquired comedy series was in the fall of 1993, when it aired repeats of CBS laffer “Major Dad.”

By bringing a popular sitcom to USA, the network hopes to broaden the mix of people watching regularly, said ChrisMcCumber, USA’s president, even as it seeks to add original comedies to a stable of dramas that includes “Psych,” “Suits” and “Covert Affairs.”

“We’ve built a very loyal audience, but now it’s about making sure we’re bringing new people into the tent,” said McCumber, who was granted sole oversight of USA just last week, after longtime corporate partner Jeff Wachtel was given a broader programming role at NBCU’s cable operations. “That’s what ‘Modern Family’ can do for us.”

And more. With its spate of popular programs, USA is often viewed as NBCU’s crown jewel. But there may be a call for this bauble to shine more brightly. The amount of money USA secures in fees from cable, satellite and telecom distributors is significantly less than some rivals, and NBCU CEO Steve Burke has made gaining parity a priority in days ahead. In 2013, USA secures 71 cents per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan, but rival TNT is able to get $1.24, while sports-oriented ESPN notches a whopping $5.54.

The addition of “Modern Family” has the potential to make a broad-skewing network even wider in scope, McCumber suggested. USA executives see only an 8% overlap between the network’s audience and viewers of “Modern Family” on ABC.  Approximately 12 million viewers of “Modern Family” between the ages of 18 and 49 watch “Modern Family” but don’t watch USA in prime time, he said.  “There’s a real, real play here for us.”

USA, after all, is set to launch original comedies of its own, diversifying its program mix. Among the new entries are “Sirens,” focused on the antics of Chicago ambulance workers and “Playing House,” a female buddy comedy. The network is maintaining its ties to hour-long dramas, said McCumber, which often come with comic overtones.

So certain are USA’s operators of “Modern Family’s” draw that they are putting it on most weeknights for long stretches of time – much in the same way Time Warner-owned rival TBS has employed “The Big Bang Theory” to draw audiences during prime time to create a potential viewer base not only for 11 p.m. talk show “Conan” but an ongoing slate of original comedies.

“Modern Family” will air five nights a week: 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; and 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. That represents 18 episodes of the program – almost a season’s worth of shows –  in a seven-day span. At that rate, critics might charge, USA is likely to blow through the program’s four seasons in record time (though it’s not as if ABC hasn’t run the episodes multiple times as well). But McCumber said USA is not expecting an immediate ratings surge hinged on the show’s debut. Instead, USA is hoping for the program’s extended presence to draw viewers on a steady basis. The network has also added reruns of “NCIS: LA” to the mix, he said, and continues to show “NCIS” and “Law and Order: SVU.”

“I think we’re going to be very patient with it. We have very tempered expectations for the first quarter,” he said. USA has studied performance not only of “Modern Family” reruns on ABC, but also “Big Bang” viewership on TBS.

To bring viewers to the adventures of Jay Pritchett and his extended clan, the network is launching a second-screen experience that will give die-hards the chance to see extra “Modern Family” content as they watch an episode live. Viewers can gain access to bonus content at http://www.modernfamilysync.com or by using USA’s mobile app. An experience associated with each episode from the series’ first four seasons will include interviews with the show’s writers, trivia and polls, as well as advertising.

USA will invite different kinds of viewing on Fridays and Sundays. Fridays will be dubbed “TGIMF” in promos; the acronym stands for “Thank God It’s Modern Family,” and is designed to promote co-viewing by parents and kids at the end of the week, said McCumber. Sundays are for digitally-savvy fans. As part of a weekly event called “Modern Family Live,” USA will ask viewers to watch, play along on a connected device and see real-time results to polls, fan meters and more on the TV screen. Top players each week will be featured at the end of the “Modern Family” telecast.

The addition of “Modern Family” has been a top sales point at NBCU. During the recent upfront, NBCU sought prices on par with what TBS has solicited for “The Big Bang Theory” on TBS or what FX has sought for “Two and a Half Men.” To get a sense of what the shows have been worth, ABC commands an average of more than $330,000 for a 30-second spot on ABC, according to media buyers, while “Big Bang” gets more than $275,000 and “Men” secures more than $247,000. The cable prices are bound to be significantly less per episode, but USA has sought top prices for “Modern Family” ad packages, ad buyers said.

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