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USA Launching Socially Conscious Film Series (Exclusive)

The Color Purple Whoopi Goldberg - P 2012
Whoopi Goldberg in "The Color Purple"

With movies like "The Color Purple," the network takes a new programming approach on Saturday nights.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

USA Network is doing some good work on Saturday nights. In a broadening of its Characters Unite public-service initiative, the top-rated cable network is launching a quarterly Saturday film series Nov. 17 with a special airing of The Color Purple.

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The NBCUniversal-owned net will present the acclaimed 1985 movie with limited ads and an introduction by star Whoopi Goldberg. The telecast follows an April airing of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was introduced by President Obama. For NBCUniversal Cable entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer, the project is deeply personal and dates back nearly two decades to when she created the socially conscious Erase the Hate campaign during her first stint at USA. More recently, she has championed the Characters Unite campaign, which is intended to promote diversity.

"I'm a big believer that we're not born knowing how to hate; we're taught to hate," she tells THR of her motivation. “We may be more sophisticated in how we hide it, but there are still so many phobias in this world, whether it’s Islamophobia, xenophobia or homophobia. I’ve been trying to do things that expose and help teach and draw attention to all of the 'isms' and how we do or don’t deal with them in our world. ”

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Longer term, Hammer is exploring the idea of launching a contest in which college and graduate students submit films about diversity. That effort might expand across Hammer's cable portfolio, too, with the short films potentially coming through her studio, Universal Cable Productions, and other extensions (think PSAs) considered for Syfy and younger-skewing E!

In addition to quarterly telecasts, Hammer hopes to arrange panels, classroom applications and discussions with talent, producers or directors to accompany the socially conscience films presented. Given the timing on The Color Purple, her plan at press time was to publish an op-ed, co-written with Goldberg. Purple's airing is set to coincide with both the United Nations' International Day of Tolerance and the 30th anniversary of the publication of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which the film is based.

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Hammer and her team selected Saturday nights -- when reruns or more current, commercial movies typically air on USA -- for the series to reach families and avoid weeknight ratings pressure. But Mockingbird managed to garner a 20 percent uptick from the time period's more typical 2.3 million viewership, showing that audience demand is there. 

She has not yet licensed additional films to feature but already has taken a look at Gentleman's AgreementImitation of LifeMilk and Brokeback Mountain, among others. Given the film series' socially positive nature, Hammer says she doesn't foresee encountering trouble licensing movies for a limited distribution window: "When you're doing something good, it's not as if people fight you about getting rights."