USA RethinksSplit-Season Strategy

Series success leads to competition for shelf space and a return to Friday-night originals
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USA Network finds itself with a high-class problem—disappearing shelf space for its many successful series. As a result, besides moving originals back to Fridays, the night where USA launched its defining hit, Monk, the top-rated cable network is rethinking its practice of splitting up the seasons of its series.

For years USA has aired half the episodes of its seasons in the summer and half in the fall or winter in an effort to keep the lights on at the network year-round. Now, with nine original series and a 10th on the way, USA is looking to scale back the practice and run seasons in their entirety, in large part because of the cost of promoting each return.

“If you have 10 shows, it’s like launching 20 shows,” USA copresident Chris McCumber says of the split-season strategy. “We only have so many resources to get the word out; if you split everything up, you’re really just spreading things out way too thinly. And that’s not a smart move.”

After USA renewed all three of its series launches from 2011—Fairly Legal, Suits and Necessary Roughness (which averaged 4.6 million, 5.8 million and 6.3 million total viewers, respectively)—McCumber and copresident Jeff Wachtel decided to start looking for shows that could run straight through their episode orders to take advantage of a simplifi ed single launch.

Ultimately, their decision to split up a season or not will be based on the show’s creative, with action dramas that lend themselves to cliff-hangers—such as Burn Notice and White Collar—probably remaining halved, with lighter shows such as Royal Pains possibly running straight through.

“As we look at it now, the way the audience views that show is almost as a guilty summer pleasure,” Wachtel says of Royal Pains. “We’re thinking that might be a show that wants to live summer for summer more than be split.”

Since USA is a cable network—and one that turns a hefty profit—it has flexibility on its side, which means it is not constrained by rigid seasons and can put shows on when it chooses. In fact, the network didn’t originally have the budget to launch three shows last year, but when McCumber and Wachtel thought all were great, Bonnie Hammer, chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studios, went to corporate and requested the extra money.

That increased volume of programming led to the recent decision to program Fridays, where the net will move Fairly Legal and In Plain Sight, both female-skewing shows, in March. McCumber and Wachtel say they saw opportunity on a night that broadcasters have run away from in recent years.

“Broadcast networks often retreat to Fridays; that’s where they put the shows that are tentative or they are playing off. We’re not doing it that way,” Wachtel says. “We’re putting some of our best stuff on Friday.”

And McCumber says that means they will put just as much of a marketing push behind the Friday launches as they would for a midweek series.

“The way that we’re going to go out with those shows is actually promoting not just the shows but the idea of Friday night,” he says. “Branding the night as an opportunity and a place for people to get original programming.”

Another looming scheduling complication is USA’s planned foray into half-hour comedy. The network acquired the off-network rights to ModernFamily, which will debut in fall 2013, but it wants to launch original comedy before that, creating a dilemma of what to pair with a new half-hour.

“We have a real desire to ramp up the comedies, to be in that comedy business, to know what we’re doing, to have one or two things out there that are working before Modern Family, but the scheduling is going to be a big challenge,” Wachtel says.

The network is not keen to try to launch two new comedies back-to-back (a strategy that routinely fails on broadcast), so instead will likely opt to pair its first greenlit pilot, an untitled project starring Nathan Lane, with one of its lighter hour-long series and hope that viewers come to programming off the hour.

“We’re lucky that we have other original series that some would call comedies,” McCumber says of shows such as Psych and Royal Pains. “In a way, we’ve created some hours that could play well with half-hours.”

These scheduling strategy changes aside, now that USA runs originals in all four quarters, its focus is on diversifying its portfolio with half-hour comedies, planned reality development and even looking at the limited series genre.

“You can be a little edgier, more provocative with a limited series,” Wachtel says. “We want to kind of play in that world as well.”

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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