'Modern Family': USA Plans Unprecedented Syndication Rollout
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On Sept. 24, Modern Family repeats debut on USA -- and the network is going to extraordinary lengths to make sure viewers are aware.
With elaborate TV spots, cast interviews, games, live events and a fan appreciation day featuring the series' stars, the NBCUniversal cable network is peddling the 20th TV-produced comedy with the type of push usually reserved for original series. Sources suggest the price tag approaches $10 million (the network won't say), but USA president Chris McCumber believes a major effort is necessary: "We're trying to bring a new audience to USA, so we have to go out and get that audience and create this habit."
The hefty commitment was on display this spring, when co-showrunner Steve Levitan and stars not only attended USA's upfront but also produced a video spoof for advertisers. The actors have posed for portraits, shot key art and invited a documentary filmmaker on set -- and the creators, Levitan and Chris Lloyd, along with their writing staff, spent multiple days providing fodder about each episode to enhance the USA viewer experience. The cast will join fans at an L.A. theater Oct. 28, followed by Modern-themed pop-up photo studios at six malls nationwide. There are second-screen games planned and an opportunity for rabid fans -- or MOFYs, as the network has dubbed them -- to submit family videos to appear on USA. Stars from many of NBCU's networks have been shooting spots in which they welcome the series, and sibling E! is airing an hourlong special all about the show. "I've never seen anything like this," says a rival network exec.
To be sure, Modern is a big bet for drama-heavy USA, which paid about $1.8 million an episode in the hope of luring younger, upscale viewers and driving up ad rates. McCumber suggests USA already is reaping the benefits, with Modern helping to drive up prices during the recent upfront negotiations. What's more, the single-camera comedy is being relied upon to help the top-rated network launch a comedy brand. (After giving Modern some time to establish itself with viewers on a new network, USA will bow two originals, Denis Leary's Sirens and Playing House, from Best Friends Forever duo Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, in 2014.) As part of the rich deal with 20th TV, which had leverage given the dearth of hit sitcoms to syndicate at the time, Modern will air nearly 20 times a week -- similar to TBS' The Big Bang Theory, which has proved a runaway success.
USA marketing chief Alexandra Shapiro is motivated by the potential to draw an entirely new audience to the cable network. "If you look at the shows that Modern Family fans watch, they don’t watch us," she says, acknowledging that her campaign for NCIS: Los Angeles, USA's other off-net launch this fall, will not require the same level of attention since that series' viewership already is in the habit of watching dramas, including flagship NCIS, on USA. With Modern, despite the series' four-season reign on ABC, her research suggests there's only an 8 percent crossover between those who watch the show and USA viewers. "Our challenge," says Shapiro, "is we've got to make a lot more noise and be a lot more disruptive to bring both the existing fan base to us and comedy fans to sample it."
Covert Affairs welcomes Modern Family to USA.