How USA Co-Presidents Will Move Beyond the 'Blue Skies' Programming (Q&A)
Eight months after inheriting the reins of the No. 1 cable network from Bonnie Hammer, Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber look to expand into comedy, reality and maybe even a late-night talk show.
When Comcast closed its $13.8 billion deal for NBC-Universal in January, the prized possession was not the legendary broadcast network. Instead, the main attraction was a stable of cable networks led by top performer USA.
Best known for upbeat "blue skies" fare such as Burn Notice and Necessary Roughness, USA is coming off its best quarter on record and is poised to round out 2011 as the No. 1 cable network for a sixth consecutive year. In October, Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan estimated that USA contributed $9.5 billion to NBCUniversal's $44.8 billion valuation, dwarfing NBC's $408 million. Rather than stay the course, newly installed co-presidents Jeff Wachtel, 56, and Chris McCumber, 44, are looking to push the company's crown jewel into new areas, including comedy and reality.
Wachtel, a Yale drama grad who produced David Mamet plays before segueing into programming, and McCumber, a writer-producer who moved into marketing, operate from opposite coasts. The pair, both married fathers of two and veterans of USA, sat down in the network's West Coast headquarters in Universal City to discuss the appeal of launching a talk show, genres they consider off-limits and what's next for the network.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: You come from different backgrounds. How do they inform the decisions you make now?
Chris McCumber: I was one of the first employees of Comedy Central. It was called Ha! I was a production assistant who had a front-row seat with the original programming, acquisitions and marketing team. It was a great first gig because I saw a network get built from the ground up, and the idea then was that people didn't watch shows, they watched networks. When I got to USA, it was much more like a broadcast network, and the mantra was, "People watch shows, not networks." I was able to mold those experiences together and say, "We can take a broad-based network that's very hard to brand and wrap this into something."
Jeff Wachtel: The similarity is that we both approach things as producers. So while Chris and I come from different places, we both have an entrepreneurial bent and are all about invention and reinvention. From my years in the theater [as a director and producer], it was about -- and is still about -- finding artists with a singular vision and making the best version of what they want to do.
THR: Which genres are not a good fit with USA?
Wachtel: These days, there are fewer and fewer. We're not that interested in period stuff, but we'd look at it. We're not that interested in sci-fi because our sister network [Syfy] is down the hall. We're looking at how far out we can go with characters who are redemptive but not quite as upbeat and aspirational as we've seen.
You're interested in moving into more serialized fare. What's the appeal?
McCumber: The way viewers are watching TV is changing radically. We've done an amazing job with having closed-ended shows bring in the broadest audience. But it's clear if you're DVR-ing, you're going to watch the shows that are most serialized because they're what everyone is talking about -- the shows you have to watch the next day. Shows that are less serialized get pushed down further on the DVR list. We've been talking about how to take even our existing shows and add a bit more serialization.
THR: USA bought Modern Family reruns, which will premiere in 2013. What types of original comedies are you looking for?
Wachtel: With Modern Family as a target, we're less likely to be going after male-dominated multicamera shows.
McCumber: We've always wanted to do shows that are a little bit more based around the family, so we'll use Modern Family as an anchor to help build out our own originals.
Wachtel: Chris and I both have teenagers, and one of the big things you think about as a parent is: Do you want your kid in a school that's going to mold your kid into what the school thinks is a perfect kid? Or do you want a school that's going to turn your kid into the best possible version of himself or herself? So I think you have to not be so rigid about your preconceived notion of what you want it to be that you're closed off from the only thing that really matters, which is great material that attracts great talent.
THR: You're also moving into reality. What's the appeal?
McCumber: It's a new audience that isn't necessarily watching USA right now. Take a look at what History has done. Something like Pawn Stars is a show that would probably fit on USA because it's a great group of characters in a family and it's a twist on a genre, and on top of that it repeats well …
Wachtel: Be careful, or I'm going to send the Pawn Stars ripoff pitches to you. (Laughs.)
THR: Are you moving away from the "blue sky" philosophy?
Wachtel: No. Anyone who has success with a specific thing probably becomes a little sensitized to it because people are always parroting it back. Our joke on the scripted side is, "If we hear one more surfing-detective pitch, we're going to kill ourselves." So it's not that we're not that, it's that we like to believe we're more than that.
THR: There has been mention of a talk show. What would that look like?
McCumber: We've always talked about wanting to have a show or a presence on the network that is day-and-date -- something that's commenting on what's going on and feels vibrant and of the moment, whether that's a late-night show or a daytime show.
THR: Do you find your network name limiting as you turn your focus overseas?
Wachtel: Whether or not the name "USA" travels, certainly the brand and type of programming does. The things that we have found work for us also travel well internationally. When we were embryonic, one of our first two shows was Monk. One of the reasons we did it was because the European community was looking for an adult detective and hadn't had a Columbo or Quincy or Murder, She Wrote in a long time -- and the U.S. market was not supplying it. We told our international team, "We have one here, but we need you to pay twice what you've been guaranteeing for the international fees." They ultimately agreed, and it exceeded their expectations and put us on the map.
THR: What's the biggest misconception about what you two are doing?
McCumber: That the style of programming we do is easy. You hear about the formula, and everybody talks about how really edgy, dark shows are tougher to do -- and that the blue-sky, happy, fun stuff we do is easy. You take a look at the work our development team does and continues to do as they maintain and grow these shows -- it ain't easy. First of all, it's dramatic yet has that comedic element to it that can continue to deliver an audience week-over-week and have characters you fall in love with.
THR: What do you see as your biggest challenge?
Wachtel: It's the ongoing dance that we do, this interesting partnership we have and the leadership of the team. Over the last seven or eight months, we were trying to put our mark on things. Chris and I are very different people, but we have a somewhat similar style, which is a bit casual. So it's managing that and managing a big asset -- an asset that moves companies [like Comcast] to acquire other assets. The biggest difference about the gig now is the amount of time we spend on fiscal and administrative responsibilities.
THR: There are nights when USA beats NBC in the ratings. How does that feel? Any internal competition?
Wachtel: That's too narrow a focus -- even the notion of ratings is a little too narrow a focus. The old question of, "How did we do last night?" is almost moot. We're looking at Covert Affairs and Burn Notice this fall with [live-plus-seven-day] viewership up over 100 percent. Anecdotally, anybody you talk to about a series is as or more likely to say, "I save up and watch six of them on my DVR." Well, there's no metric for that; there's no L-80. That's what keeps me up at night. So it's almost silly to talk about beating each other. … When we look at our sister broadcast network, we look at really smart leadership. They've got some visionary people over there now managing the programming -- and a lot of challenges. The most important thing for them is trying to figure out a vision to attack the future. But in that future, are there going to be the gigantic, broad-based successes we've seen? Maybe. Even the broadcast networks are eager to find something that has defined our success, which is a core audience devoted to your show.
THR: We know what you're programming. What are you watching that's not on USA?
Wachtel: Homeland is my favorite new show.
McCumber: I'm watching Boardwalk Empire right now and can't wait for Arrested Development to come back.
THR: How do the two of you divide duties?
McCumber: All big decisions are made together, but since we're 3,000 miles apart, we spend a lot of time on the phone, on videoconference and on each other's coast.
Wachtel: As a matter of fact, we're thinking about establishing a satellite office in Nebraska so we can meet halfway!
THR: I imagine you don't always agree. What's your method of conflict resolution?
Wachtel: My teenage daughter likes to tell me, "Pick your battles, Dad." I think that's good advice. Unless you feel passionate about something, a tie should go to your partner.
McCumber: We talk it out, and so far that's worked for us.
USA'S BIGGEST HITS
Royal Pains: A Hamptons-set medical dramedy centered on a concierge-style doctor (Mark Feuerstein) for the super-rich. Average viewership: 7.2 million
Burn Notice: A Miami-based drama about Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a former covert operative who comes face-to-face with the man who burned him. Average viewership: 6.9 million
Covert Affairs: An international spy drama centered on a CIA field operative (Piper Perabo) trying to mend her relationship with her sister. Average viewership: 6.9 million
USA'S REALITY PUSH: An exclusive first look at McCumber and Wachtel's early projects as they venture into the nonscripted genre
The Choir: The Shed Media format features choirmaster Gareth Malone, who unites and transforms unsuspecting communities with music. A U.K. iteration has already won two BAFTA Awards during the course of its run.
The Moment: The high-stakes format concept hosted by former NFL star Kurt Warner is produced by Charlie Ebersol and Justin Hochberg's newly launched The Company.
Untitled Social Experiment: The high-concept relationship docusoap/social experiment hails from Magical Elves, the production company behind such franchises as Top Chef and Work of Art.
Untitled Docusoap: The primetime reality soap opera, details of which are being kept under wraps, comes from Adam DiVello, creator of MTV's The Hills and spinoff The City.
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