Monday, July 08, 2002

USA Network seeking niche at night

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

        When you program a cable network that aspires to reach a big, general audience, you have to hope that the broadcast networks overlook some things.

        That's the case with the USA Network's two new original series, The Dead Zone and Monk.


    AP television writer David Bauder can be reached at

        Based on a Stephen King story about a man who wakes up from a coma with the ability to see the future, The Dead Zone, starring Anthony Michael Hall, was developed for UPN but never made it onto the air. USA snapped it up.

        Similarly, the crime-fighting drama Monk was written for ABC but never cast. When an ABC executive joined USA recently, she brought the project with her.

        “I don't care where the stuff comes from,” said Doug Herzog, who took over as USA Network president a year ago. “I just care about finding good projects and getting them on the air.”

        The Dead Zone on June 16 drew the highest ratings for a premiere than any other cable series in television history. Monk debuts 9 p.m. Friday.

        As recently as two years ago, before it lost professional wrestling, USA was the top-rated basic cable network. Now, Lifetime, Nickelodeon and TNT outpace USA in prime time.

        USA isn't doing poorly; its audience for the first half of this year was up 11 percent over last year. But its ratings are primarily driven by reruns like Walker, Texas Ranger and JAG and movies.

        And there's been little progress toward reaching Mr. Herzog's goal of establishing signature series like The Sopranos or Sex and the City on HBO, the network he cites as a model.

        Unlike niche networks — like The Weather Channel which people watch to find out about the weather — a network like USA is defined strictly by its programming, said Larry Gerbrandt, a cable television analyst for Paul Kagan and Associates. In other words, people watch for a specific show.

        “This is a tough business,” Mr. Gerbrandt said. “If you're with USA, TNT, TBS, ABC Family, FX or TNN — all of these are looking for the same broad category of viewers. In the end, it's probably going to take some really breakthrough original programming to do that.”

        The competing sister stations TNT and TBS have sought a clearer identity by having one network concentrate on drama, the other comedy.

        But niche networks, while they can be successful, ultimately limit themselves, Mr. Herzog said. “They hit a wall and they can't get past it in the ratings,” he said. “What they do then is they start becoming more like us.”

        VH1 and CNBC were once smashingly successful. Now they're scrambling for viewers.

        “We don't see USA as one thing,” he said. “We're not a niche channel. We're a big, broad network, and we're sort of unapologetic about it.”

        Still, he is aiming for a sort of “niche at night” approach. Wednesday is USA's action night, for instance, and Friday will focus on crime stories. On Sundays, USA will pair The Dead Zone with some of its biggest movies. Mr. Herzog also wants to start a comedy night at some point.

        After a period of drifting, USA is “finally putting the pieces together,” said Andy Donchin of the media buying firm Carat USA. He recently met with Mr. Herzog to go over the network's plans.

        “I went to the meeting not expecting much and came out of it blown away that he was working on so much stuff,” Mr. Donchin said.

        USA is reducing the number of original movies it's making each year, concentrating on fewer, more high-profile projects. Two movies in production are about the Martha Moxley murder in Greenwich, Conn., and President John F. Kennedy's wartime experience in the Navy.

        The cable network is also racing NBC to be the first to have a made-for-TV movie about former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

        USA is again following HBO's lead in developing limited-run series. In the works: a series based on the film Traffic; one about a cult that goes on a killing spree; a murder mystery from Twin Peaks producer Mark Frost; and miniseries on the Crusades and King Tut.

        A veteran television executive who once ran Comedy Central and was briefly Fox's entertainment president, Mr. Herzog may ultimately have a short leash at USA. Michael Jackson, a British programming wunderkind, was recently installed as Mr. Herzog's boss at corporate owner Universal Television.

        USA has to look harder for distinctive series because it clearly ranks below the broadcast networks and HBO in the Hollywood pecking order that producers consider to get their work on the air.

        Sometimes networks buy projects they really have no intention of putting on the air just to stop its rivals, Mr. Herzog said.

        Success is the best way to break the logjam.

        “If you have one hit, people then believe you can do it,” he said.

        Around the dial: Ted Danson, Shelley Long and Bebe Neuwirth talk about that place where everybody knew their names on TVography: Cheers (8 p.m. and midnight today, A&E).


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