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USA Hopes for Summer Trifecta

6/22/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

USA Network is betting on a trio of original series this summer, looking to attract audiences with the return of prized original Monk; a mini-season for sophomore drama Dead Zone; and its newest original, Peacemakers, due in late July.

Summer is the favored time of year for many cable nets to unwrap their new fare, and USA leads the pack. But things are different now that broadcast networks don't roll over and die during the hot months.

Last year, USA made a big splash introducing Dead Zone and Monk and giving President Doug Herzog a pair of hits for his first two original shows as network chief.

For now, says Herzog, summer is USA's time. But he aspires to program like HBO, "with a handful of really quality original programs that we'll dole out somewhat sparingly [throughout the year]."

And, like HBO, USA is building a reputation for originals. "They've been good and lucky to put stuff on that's been working," says Carat USA media buyer Andrew Donchin.

USA's favorite son, clearly, is Monk, a quirky detective series that, in its first season, earned a Golden Globe award for star Tony Shaloub. In a rare twist, ABC gave Monk,
a cable show, a repurposing run.

But USA hasn't shown a fresh episode of Monk
since October, a long time in the TV world. Herzog isn't troubled, though. Monk
has staying power, he says, like HBO hits Sex and the City
or The Sopranos
and "can come on for 13 episodes, then disappear for year, and people are very happy when it comes back."

Herzog will spin out 16 new episodes of Monk, airing nine this summer and seven more next winter. (USA is taking a page from HBO's scheduling tricks for Sex and the City.)

Monk
isn't the only item on Herzog's shelf. Thriller Dead Zone
returns July 6 with six new episodes in what is viewed as a test of the show's longer-term viability. After a strong start last summer, USA made a risky move and sent Dead Zone
to January. Airing in the first quarter—and a Sunday-night slot—deflated its ratings, and, some weeks, its Nielsen marks slipped below a 2.0.

Looking back, Herzog admits that "starting in March would have been a little cleaner." A March debut gives a cable show eight weeks to breathe before broadcasters make their May-sweeps push.

Because of broadcast networks' increased energy, Herzog says, this summer may not be "as clear a landscape." But he notes that broadcasting is mainly adding reality shows, while "USA is focusing on quality drama. We're going to zig where they zag."

USA will try to deliver with another quirky drama, Peacemakers, which stars Tom Berenger as an Old West crime solver adapting to modern times. USA bills the show as a procedural crime show, in the same vein as CBS's hot drama CSI. But, says Herzog, "we didn't want to be the umpteenth contemporary procedural show. We thought we'd do it with a twist: the Old West."

The originals could be a boost for USA's prime time ratings, which in May averaged a 1.5 household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.

When Peacemakers
joins the schedule July 30, the cable net will have originals on three nights. Lifetime, in contrast, packs its originals together in a block on Sunday and, come August, Saturday nights.

Standing alone makes USA's shows vulnerable. But, as a broad-based network, Herzog says, USA needs shows that speak to different genres and audiences. They get strong movies as lead-ins, but, even so, he admits, "the [originals] succeed or fail somewhat on their own."

Come fall, USA will get steady player in prime time when it begins stripping Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Repurposed episodes of the NBC drama already air at 11 p.m., drawing solid ratings. In prime, SVU should be a reliable companion for the net's originals, and the network needs it. USA's current off-net workhorse, JAG, is moving to Hallmark Channel in prime time, although USA will still have rights to air it out of prime.

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