Redrawing USA map
After 14 months, it's about time Herzog drives cable net faster
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/19/2002 8:00:00 PM
It takes at least a year for a new network president to stamp a schedule and claim—or be blamed for—the results. After 14 months on the job, USA Network President Doug Herzog must know, as USA launches a slate of new originals and specials for summer, that it's time to put up or shut up.
"We didn't have anything to talk about for a long time, and now we do," said Herzog, the creative force at USA since his former boss, USA Cable President Stephen Chao, stepped down last fall. "Original programming is not an elective."
Herzog wants to change the cable conversation. The Osbournes and The Shield have been stealing the limelight long enough. His network—which once had hit originals Silk Stalkings and La Femme Nikita—is back in the original-series business. Two new ones—the first projects picked by Herzog—hit the schedule this summer: Up first, on June 16, is Dead Zone, a supernatural thriller originally made as a UPN pilot; Monk, billed as Columbo with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, debuts July 12. Each cost an estimated $1 million per episode.
Sure, USA pulls in a 1.7 rating in prime time, a number that would make other cablers swoon. But, in some ways, the net has been treading water. Prime time ratings were off 11% in the first quarter from 2001 levels. And its Nielsen ratings are driven by a handful of tired CBS off-net programs and big theatricals. Until the World Wrestling Federation defected to TNN in September 2000 and Lifetime turned on the heat under chief Carole Black, USA was the king of cable. Now fifth place just won't do.
Herzog has been at USA just over a year, but it's only now that his visions will be seen in prime. "You always have the lag from the last guy," said USA Cable Networks President of Ad Sales Jeff Lucas. "He made commitments, and you have to live up to them. But now it's Doug's turn."
Under Chao, USA offered originals like G vs. E and variety show Happy Hour, which critics lamented were too edgy for the net's broad audience and said they confused viewers.
Herzog now reports to British programmer Michael Jackson, head of USA Cable, Studios USA and USA Films, and has more autonomy to program USA.
USA's prime time workhorses—acquired series JAG, Walker, Texas Ranger and Nash Bridges—draw a loyal crowd. But it's older (average age in prime time in the fourth quarter was 45) and not growing. Fresh viewers and new advertisers are not flocking to USA.
"Doug didn't come to that network to be Nick at Nite. He wants to make his mark with originals," said one cable network executive who worked with Herzog in the past.
Herzog has a history of cable hits. He spent 11 years at MTV, where his credits included The Real World, and he discovered South Park during a stint at Comedy Central. His foray into broadcast, a year-long turn as president of entertainment for Fox, was short, but he did put on Malcolm in the Middle. "I zig when everyone else zags," he said. "People said Fox couldn't do comedy."
USA always offered advertisers reach but little else. "The knock was that they never had focus or direction. But, with Herzog, one is starting to develop," said Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat USA.
Of course, Herzog expressed confidence his efforts would mesh well. "These are network-quality shows, not watered down." he said. "They play to a broad audience but with a contemporary spin."
USA is the top draw among adults 18-49 in prime so far this year. It's unlikely two new hours per week could damage that. If either Dead Zone or Monk is a hit—as MTV found with The Osbournes—the audience gains can be tremendous. Two more series, including an hour-long action show, are in development.
Herzog plans to stay broad, touting USA as the anti-niche network. "Our competitors are hiding behind niche, and their slip is showing," Herzog said. "We're unapologetic about being big and broad."
That means, expect a crop of Adam Sandler laughers, a dash of golf and U.S. Open Tennis, and repurposed episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order Criminal Intent (both produced by corporate cousin Studios USA) after their initial NBC play. Off-nets of SVU will be stripped starting in fall 2003.
USA cut back original movies and plans about a dozen and two miniseries per year. Future projects include a biopic on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a Helen of Troy miniseries.
Herzog also has been busy recruiting big stunts, such as the Willie Nelson & Friends concert on Memorial Day and the AFI Tribute to Tom Hanks June 24.
Late night is Herzog's next target. After play-on-words game show Smush flopped last winter, USA retrenched. The next shot will be Late Game, billed by Herzog as a "topical game show with a late night feel."
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