Can Class and Mass Co-Exist?
Cable's top-rated network, USA still seeks cultural cachet ("AMC envy," says one exec) as "Political Animals" tests the appetites of its audience.
When Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver announced she would make her television series debut in Political Animals, a heavily serialized, darkly political cable project, few would have looked for it on USA Network. Long known as the home of such light-hearted, quippy procedural hits as Burn Notice and Covert Affairs, the NBCUniversal-owned network has found an almost fail-proof formula for delivering ratings and revenue, the CBS equivalent for cable. But now its executives, led by co-presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber, are eager to grab hold of the one thing that largely has eluded the No. 1-rated network: prestige, Hollywood-speak for awards and cultural currency.
"We think this is the right show at the right time," says McCumber, noting that the goal is not only to satisfy current USA viewers with a project he describes as "provocative" and "timely" but also to bring new (and potentially more affluent) eyeballs to the network. The six-episode series, which sources say cost a USA-record $3.5 million-plus per episode, centers on a divorced former first lady-turned-secretary of state in the vein of Hillary Clinton. Its first outing July 15 drew just 2.6 million viewers (about two-thirds of what Burn Notice generates) and generally favorable reviews, with noted critic Alan Sepinwall calling it a "very un-USA miniseries" and praising its "heavier, more mature" storyline.
"Even before it premiered, USA became part of the cultural conversation," adds Wachtel, referencing columns in The New York Times and political tie-ins on Huffington Post. That effort to tap into the zeitgeist, as Showtime has done with its CIA thriller Homeland, is part of the duo's strategy to evolve the network beyond its cadre of procedurals. Multiple sources say USA execs have been making the studio and agency rounds the past year in search of potential awards bait, be it traditionally on-brand for the network or not (USA's past Emmys include acting nods for Monk and The Starter Wife). But doing so doesn't come without risk, as its so-called "blue sky" fare has proved lucrative. A Wunderlich Securities analyst recently estimated that USA contributed $8.6 billion to NBCUniversal's $46.7 billion valuation, dwarfing NBC's $526 million.
Creator Greg Berlanti brought his Animals spec script to USA after remembering a Christmas party conversation he'd had with Wachtel, who said if Berlanti had done his short-lived ABC legal drama Eli Stone there, it would still be on the air. "More important to me than the perceived notion of the network is the enthusiasm and passion of the people there," says Berlanti, who was struck by Wachtel and McCumber's eagerness to get it on the air in six months' time to be part of the election-season discussion. Bypassing the pilot process helped lure talent like Weaver, Carla Gugino and Ellen Burstyn. Now that the six episodes are shot, he says he's "desperate to do more." (The actors are contracted to continue if the effort proves successful.)
A top studio exec who does business with USA believes the play for prestige comes from a desire "to be less of a one-trick pony -- to be in the Emmy race, to be looked at as a serious player when it comes to industry perception and to expand a somewhat static set of ratings numbers." Like many, this exec calls Animals a calculated risk that makes sense for the network. Rather than be prestige for prestige's sake, as one might have labeled HBO's little-watched horse-racing drama Luck, the Weaver effort echoes some of the more commercial qualities of the net's other hits, including a strong lead and true "characters," as USA's tagline suggests, while straying from its other sunnier, quirkier, close-ended series in tone.
History scored with that precise strategy when it rolled out its own prestige play, Hatfields & McCoys, to 13 million-plus viewers over three nights in May, making it the second-most-watched entertainment program in basic cable history (behind High School Musical 2). The scripted miniseries about the feuding families attracted non-network viewers lured by the top-shelf talent -- Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton -- without abandoning either the history buffs or the reality-heavy net's core Pawn Stars demo. The result: History, which had talent agencies rumbling about a plan to scrap its pricey scripted push before Hatfields hit, is now considered a viable option for TV's top creators.
Others explain USA's push more bluntly: "They have AMC envy," says one executive, referring to the rival network lined with critical darlings (but not quite high ratings) from Mad Men to Breaking Bad. Adds another: "USA is unbelievably profitable, and they should be proud of that; but the question now is, what's their legacy going to be? And who wouldn't want a mantel full of awards?"