USA's line-up is designed to make it easy for viewers to know when to tune in and what to expect. Schedule changes are slow to come to USA, and the net rarely makes a programming misstep. But change is afoot.
WWE dominates Monday nights and off network dramas comprise the white noise that holds the network together with strips and three-hour primetime blocks. NCIS and LAW & ORDER: SVU typically fill that role. Movies play a lesser role, filling programming holes and holiday-themed nights and weekends.
Original one-hour dramas are starting to saturate the line-up. They ran on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays in 2011, with the series split between two seasons, summer (May-September) and winter (December – March). This year Friday nights are back in play, and USA is considering running series straight through the season instead of splitting them up.
USA’s long-talked about jump into reality and comedy will begin this year, and scheduling for the new programming genres will undoubtedly stir up the extraordinarily consistent strategies of recent years.
MARCH 2012 PRIMETIME RATINGS ANALYSIS:
Live Primetime Ratings Comparison / March 2012 vs. March 2011 (% Change)
Source: The Nielsen Company's National Television Audience Sample
MARCH 2012: USA remains basic cable’s top rated network month after month and quarter after quarter. It is the only network to consistently post household ratings above a two, and is now running high-rated original dramas nearly all year. This March was USA’s best-rated month among households and core adult 25-54 demos since August, when it was at the height of the summer season. But the news isn’t all good at USA. While adult ratings are up very slightly vs. last month, they are down by 10% vs. last year, with biggest losses coming from men and younger demos. In fact median audience age continues to creep up, this month reaching its highest ever, falling just outside of the 25-54 age group. First quarter 2012 adult 25-54 ratings are off by 9% vs. first quarter 2011, 18% vs. first quarter 2010 and 24% vs. first quarter 2009 when the network was at its ratings peak.
USA’s returning line-up vs. last year took a beating. With the notable exception of NCIS (+2%), every program fell dramatically. Even WWE took a tumble, down 16% on core men 18-49. WHITE COLLAR’s season finale delivered 41% lower adult 25-54 ratings than last March’s program average. FAIRLY LEGAL and IN PLAIN SIGHT moved to low-rated Friday nights, which undoubtedly contributed to the 28% decline for FAIRLY LEGAL. (IN PLAIN SIGHT wasn’t on the air last March). Even with the infusion of original programming Friday night fell by 13% vs. last year. But the biggest blow to the bottom line came from LAW & ORDER: SVU, which dropped 27% of its adult 25-54 ratings from last year. Unlike the scripted original dramas that run only once a week, L&O ran an average of 6 times a week, accounting for over one-fourth of the primetime inventory.
Despite all of these dramatic losses, USA’s core adult 25-54 ratings fell by just 10%. NCIS can be credited with minimizing the decline. Although the off-net procedural saw just 2% adult 25-54 ratings growth, it was the only returning program from last year to grow at all. With a dominating presence on the line-up (39 telecasts), it carries a lot of weight, and so it was able to stabilize the network's bottom line. USA’s increasing median age can also be attributed to the growing ratings share of NCIS.
USA isn’t sitting back and watching its numbers slide. The net is in active development on new programming and new genres, trying to broaden its scope while keeping true to the finely honed USA brand. But that is a tricky road to tread, and two recently produced drama pilots have not received orders (OVER/UNDER and WILD CARD). The reasons given to the press were basically not high enough quality for one and too far off the brand for the other (a much darker tone). Two comedies are also in development (LOCAL TALENT and PAGING DR. FREED), but USA has yet to pull the trigger.