USA Leaves ‘Blue Skies’ Behind

In a bid to reverse a sharp ratings decline and attract more millennial viewers, network tilts toward grittier fare
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The last year-plus has seen the departures of USA’s “Blue Skies” branddefining series Burn Notice and Pysch, as well as White Collar. The network’s ratings struggles were punctuated last year when it shed 20% of its primetime audience, falling behind ESPN for the total viewer crown among cablers, ending its eight-year winning streak.

The NBCUniversal network is among a growing list of mature cable powers that have experienced viewer erosion over the past year. ESPN, the leader among the adults 18-49 demo as well in 2014, was one of the few cablers to see year-over-year growth, thanks to its bevy of live sports programming.

USA attempted to break into comedy in 2014 with Sirens and Playing House. While neither attracted a large audience, they both grabbed second seasons (Playing House will have a unique structure, with episodes premiering first on VOD). However, a year after an upfront lineup that was almost a 50- 50 mix of comedies and dramas, the network all but shuttered its comedy development, leaving only those two and the upcoming Donny Deustch-led Donny! on the air.

In dramas, Rush and Satisfication didn’t draw big either, though Satisifaction—from Universal Cable Productions—did get renewed; USA also canceled Covert Affairs after five seasons.

USA’s development slate, unveiled during an April 7 press event in New York, features period dramas, serialized fare and a DC Comics adaptation. The schedule has nine drama projects, an unscripted pact with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and enlists producers including Charlize Theron, Rob Reiner, Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke, Supernatural’s Eric Kripke, Sleepy Hollow’s Len Wiseman, Suits’ Aaron Korsh and Life Unexpected’s Liz Tigelaar and Barry Sonnenfeld. USA is expanding its ties to Todd Chrisley, ordering pilots for a late-night series he’ll host and a Chrisley Knows Best spinoff.

USA president Chris McCumber said the network is hoping the programming rethink will help USA reach more millennials, who make up twothirds of TV’s overall 18-49 audience.

The development slate represents a further departure—first touted during last spring’s upfront—from USA’s longtime “Blue Skies” aesthetic, which yielded a series of hits in the 2000s such as Burn Notice, Psych and Monk. Alex Sepiol, USA senior VP of original scripted programming, called the new slate “a huge leap forward,” noting the aim was to find stories “that make you think about what is happening in our world.”

USA is hoping to make waves with its Christian Slater-led hacker drama, Mr. Robot, which won the audience award at SXSW and is an official selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mr. Robot, which was ordered to series during the massive hacking attack at Sony, will be the first of a new wave of grittier scripted fare for the cabler; Sepiol described the drama as “The Social Network meets Fight Club.”

Another upcoming drama from Carlton Cuse, Colony, centers on a family protecting itself from an alien invasion. Complications, a summer debut alongside Mr. Robot, is a cross between a medical drama and a crime thriller. The network also picked up a pilot for a psychological thriller Falling Water from Walking Dead executive producer Gale Anne Hurd.

“What you’re seeing is an evolution,” McCumber told B&C, noting that current mainstays like Suits and Graceland represent the current push for USA into more serialized programming.

“You really are going for this idea of unexpected heroes who are bravely emerging against all odds,” McCumber continued. “That is something that the country right now, especially the millennial audience, is going to really connect with.”

Grappling With Live Programming

ESPN’s rise to the top of the cable charts last year—driven primarily by its robust offering of live sports—was not lost on McCumber, who looks to make live programming a major pillar for USA. “We are bringing more live programming to the network than we’ve had,” said McCumber during the presentation.

Later this month, USA will broadcast games from the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 30 years. (NBC Sports is in the fourth year of its deal with the NHL.) While the addition of playoff hockey should add some ratings, it doesn’t compare to the viewership for the Big 3 pro sports leagues. Even so, last year’s playoffs averaged 1.19 million viewers (not included the Stanley Cup Final) across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, the best in 17 years.

Where USA hopes to see the biggest increase in live programming will be with the WWE, which will move its Thursday series Smackdown from sister cabler Syfy to USA in early 2016. McCumber will look to further bolster the 10 p.m. hour on Thursdays once Smackdown is on the schedule.

USA has already enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship with Monday Night RAW, which routinely is the topranked cable series on Monday nights. Smackdown, which moved back to Thursdays in January, has been Syfy’s top primetime series this year and the second-highest rated cable series on the night among adults 18-49, even besting TNT’s NBA telecasts.

USA advertising sales chief Peter Lazarus spoke during the presentation about “educating the marketplace about WWE’s positive attributes,” noting that it’s live nature makes it DVR-proof. “Its unparalleled multiplatform scale, combined with the fact that it’s live 52 weeks a year, make it a valued commodity in today’s marketplace.” The push to polish up the WWE reflects the wide-ranging new deal that NBCU and the wrestling giant struck last year, which gives NBCU more control over advertising sales for the programs.

USA Plans Further Limited Series Efforts

USA was hoping to get more out of its ambitious limited series effort Dig, which debuted to a soft 1.8 million viewers last month; it did, however, see a huge delayed-viewing gain, more than doubling its audience after three days of playback. Despite the low ratings for its Middle Eastern mystery series, network president Chris McCumber is undeterred, arguing that it was important for the network to take risks in an effort to stand out.

“It’s a big swing USA has taken from a creative standpoint,” he told B&C, noting the network’s massive promotional push for Dig. “[It] shows the advertisers, press, Hollywood, all of that, that we’re willing to take big swings and get behind a show in a big way.”

USA is developing another limited run series The Recessionistas, which is based on the book by Wall Street executive Alexandra Lebenthal. The financial drama follows elite Manhattan women and their ruthless Wall Street husbands in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse.

“There is so much competition that you really have to create events out of all of your programming,” McCumber said.

The last year-plus has seen the departures of USA’s “Blue Skies” branddefining series Burn Notice and Pysch, as well as White Collar. The network’s ratings struggles were punctuated last year when it shed 20% of its primetime audience, falling behind ESPN for the total viewer crown among cablers, ending its eight-year winning streak.

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