USA's line-up is one of the most watchable in cable. Designed to make it easy for viewers to know when to tune in and what to expect, the net rarely makes a programming misstep.
WWE dominates Monday nights and took over all three primetime hours this July. Off network dramas comprise the white noise that holds the network together with strips and three-hour primetime blocks. The network acquisitions bring in a steady audience flow and a lot of live viewing that is used to help build original franchises. 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. This summer, Friday and Sunday nights were back in play, and USA is considering running series straight through instead of splitting them up into summer and winter seasons. Original programming is running nearly all year long now. " We are now a four-quarter network, even though our dominance is in the summer. We don’t want to be beholden to a 52-week schedule, but it’s about having something on always to keep us in the audience’s mind," (Jeff Wachtel in MultiChannel News).
USA’s long-talked about jump into reality and comedy begins this year, and scheduling for the new programming genres will undoubtedly stir up the extraordinarily consistent strategies of recent years. There have also been some public moves towards expanding original programming into late night and daytime.
JULY 2012 PRIMETIME RATINGS ANALYSIS:
Live + Same Day Primetime Ratings Comparison / July 2012 vs. July 2011 (% Change)
Source: The Nielsen Company's National Television Audience Sample
USA continued to roll out a line-up chock full of originals this month, with eight original dramas running across five nights of the week. These programs are no slouches, each drawing more than 1.5 million households and five of them pulling more than 2 million households each week. With the considerable help of WWE, the originals helped push up the bottom line primetime average by nearly 10% on core adults 25-54 vs. last month. And yet, numbers are off vs. last year – down just a couple of percentage points on men, but down by 17% among women, dragging down the core adult 25-54 audience by 11% vs. last year.
Things started out great on Monday nights as the venerable WWE franchise celebrated its 1000th episode on July 23rd. We see a 29% gain in men 18-49 vs. last year, but viewing among women remained the same. According to USA the 1000th time was a charm as the telecast drew record-setting numbers: the most watched 3-hour episode of all time in P25-54, P18-34 and total viewers and the highest 9pm-11pm telecasts in over a decade for total viewers, almost five years in P18-49 and P18-34, and over a year in P25-54. On a future note, WWE will now run in all three primetime hours on Mondays, instead of its usual 9 to 11PM two-hour slot.
The primary nights for original dramas, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, each took double-digit hits across the board, down by more than 20% for both men and women on Tuesdays. Wednesdays took the worst of it, down by more than 30% on women and Thursdays dropped between 6% and 22% on demos. Why the declines? A lot of it has to do with “filler” programming. Last year the originals aired regularly every week. This year they were pre-empted by LAW & ORDER or NCIS at least once. But every returning program’s average audience dropped as well. By a lot. Three of the top five scripted hours in July’s primetime for all of cable among P25-54 were BURN NOTICE, SUITS and ROYAL PAINS (per USA), yet each of those programs lost audience vs. last year. Another sign that the scripted drama cable dance card is officially full.
USA has seen this coming for a while now. They bought rights to MODERN FAMILY, and are developing a whole slate of comedies to support it. Reality programming is coming soon; THE CHOIR received a greenlight this month with an order for 10 episodes to air in early 2013.
And another genre was tested this month with POLITICAL ANIMALS, a political satire starring Sigourney Weaver. Industry insiders believe the program is on the air to help USA establish street cred and prestige, otherwise known as industry awards. Jeff Wachtel, network co-president has spoken of making USA part of “the cultural conversation.” We can’t tell you if the program can help USA shed its image as a one-trick-network (with the light-hearted, blue skies procedural being its very lucrative trick), and we can’t tell you if it will win any awards, but we can tell you how the show has been doing in the ratings.
POLITICAL ANIMALS wasn’t July’s lowest rated show, that dubious honor is held by COMMON LAW. But it was the lowest rated on key adults 25-54. In another bad sign it failed to hit the benchmark of topping its NCIS lead-in. The lead-in was switched to LAW & ORDER: SVU in the last week of the month, and POLITICAL ANIMALS failed to build on that program as well. The program’s creator is on record as being all set to produce more episodes. A renewal order is still pending, and will speak volumes about USA’s priorities.