How USA Network Plans to Maintain Its Ratings Success and Evolve the 'Blue Sky' Format

3:21 PM PST 07/13/2011 by Philiana Ng
Rene Macura/USA Network
Jeff Wachtel, left, and Chris McCumber

Co-presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber reveal their game plan to THR for broadening the network's scope and finding a place for upcoming series "Common Law."

This summer, the USA Network has one of its busiest and most ambitious slates yet, launching two new television series less than one week apart and all of its original programs relaunching.

Tuesday's one-two punch White Collar and Covert Affairs hit season highs six weeks into their young seasons and Thursday staple Burn Notice, finding new life in Season 5, improved double digits in overall viewership in its opener. Rookie Necessary Roughness held its own in its supersized debut, retaining 93 percent of Royal Pains' audience in mid-June, and new dysfunctional lawyer drama Suits, retained 90 percent of Burn Notice's tune-in for its series debut. Proving it wasn't a fluke, last week's Suits held onto nearly all of its pilot viewership.

"We couldn’t be happier with the results of both of those shows," USA Network co-president Chris McCumber told The Hollywood Reporter of Necessary Roughness and Suits. "There’s still a lot of work to be done though. It’s a long summer. We want to keep this momentum going and build on it."

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McCumber and network co-president Jeff Wachtel spoke to THR about where the No. 1 cable network goes from here, the significance of the audience's feedback and how USA plans on evolving from its "blue sky" format.

The Hollywood Reporter: Were there the challenges in launching two different shows one week apart?

Chris McCumber: Every show that we do, we have to go out with multiple messages, but somehow tie it all together. With Necessary Roughness, you have a story about a woman who’s fighting her way back and reinventing her life, but also with this professional football team. There were a lot of different ways that we went out with that message. Suits itself is a great legal, in a weird way, friendship between this closer-lawyer and this young, up-and-coming brilliant guy. Both characters are more flawed than what you find on a lot of USA Network shows, which we like that we’re pushing out a little bit against the brand.

THR: Necessary Roughness feels different from the rest of the shows, in terms of the "blue sky" formula. Is that a series that could broaden the network's scope moving forward?

McCumber: There are more soap opera elements.    

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Jeff Wachtel: We resist the notion of a formula here. I know that a lot of people like to say "formula." We think that as soon as you start to have a formula imputed to your work, you’re in danger of becoming formulaic. So the one formula we have as a rule here is falling in love with the material. We understand that we’re functioning within a perceived brand. "Blue sky" is a nice shorthand, but I’d argue that In Plain Sight is a show that deals with a pretty significantly-damaged individual. Suits is a show that really pushes it out in terms of the lead characters being not particularly likeable or redeemable. Necessary Roughness, the director-producer on that show left us with a palette on which she called “perpetual autumn.” So the clearly chosen look on that show, the leaves are always turning at the beginning of the football season kind of feel. Each [show] has its own specific hallmark.

THR: Isn’t that a formula in itself: basing shows on characters with complicated backstories, always striving to be better and are aspirational?

Wachtel: Maybe it’s semantics, but it’s like a recipe for putting different elements together, which they do have and you could say it’s a formula. But when people say formula, there’s almost a little bit of a negative construct to it. It’s nice when people describe us as a "hit factory," but it makes it sound like you’re just making baked beans or something.

McCumber: Like an assembly line.

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Wachtel: Really, the idea of creating consistent quality of a show is complicated. It’s not like making refrigerators. There’s something very specific to each one of the shows, each episode of each show and that involves a really great team doing great work.

McCumber: There’s the formula for success, but we don’t want to become one-note. We’re taking every meeting we have here about where we’re going with the programming. There’s always this true drive to push against the brand a little bit. Characters like you see in Suits, you wouldn’t see on USA Network four or five years ago. There is a methodical, incremental way that we’re pushing out against the brand because frankly, you don’t want to abandon this huge fanbase that USA has. Yet you also want to continue to surprise them, so they become even more enamored with your network. On top of that, increase your reach and bring in new people into the tent. That’s the balance that we have here. We definitely want to continue to push up, but you don’t want to make this huge left turn that’s going to completely piss off your base. Then all of a sudden, you’re left scrambling.

THR: Back then, USA had The 4400 and The Dead Zone. Do you see the network moving forward in a new direction? Where does the network go from here?

Wachtel: Even in those days, we weren’t really sci-fi. When you think about the approach of Dead Zone, Dead Zone was not a Stephen King thriller. The writer, Michael Piller, came up with a very personal, very humanistic, very character-based way into the work of Stephen King. A man whose life has been shattered, who has impregnated his lover, who has the child. A wonderful triangular romance that [built up] over time. The 4400 was a big genre concept, but our sell was life interrupted. It wasn’t Armageddon, it wasn’t Deep Impact, but in those days, with our bigger, more genre pieces, the network’s approach was always coming into it from a character perspective. That’s something we’ve figured out how to do with a spy show, a lawyer show, a doctor show.

THR: It’s always character first?

Wachtel: It is always character first and story second.

McCumber: But we look at our palette too, and in the case of Common Law, we took a look at some of the other shows we already had humming and we said, “We don’t have as many action, buddy-cop, procedural-type stuff in there.” And we wanted to make sure that was added on. Tipped the hand a little towards comedy. Action, buddy-cop is something that historically has worked well for USA.

THR: Some networks put everything into a series launch and don’t maintain that level throughout the season ...

Wachtel: What happens if you build them one at a time, if you do it right, you have things that are hitting different levels of maturity, but a panoply of shows. So you have Burn Notice being reinvented, Michael having solved the mystery of who burned him. You have a show like White Collar in its third season resetting the level of tension and mistrust between the two leads, almost as significant as it was in the pilot. Then you’ve got Necessary Roughness and Suits pushing out and doing shows that are a little bit different than what you’ve seen on the air.

THR: Was the Burn Notice prequel an experiment that you’re satisfied with?

McCumber: It’s a long list of things we do to give back to the fans. The Burn Notice prequel was one thing, since there are such fanatical Burn Notice fans out there. Even in the case of White Collar, where we had the fans debating whether or not they liked the new open or the old open, we sat here and said, “Why don’t we let the audience decide? Let’s do that.” It’s a very simple idea but one that had garnered a tremendous interest among the fanbase. When you give that back to the audience, they become even more invested in the show. They become evangelists, and that’s how you build that rabid audience.

Email: philiana.ng@thr.com

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