USA's Pricey 'Modern Family' Bet Shows Signs of Life

"Modern Family's" Eric Stonestreet (left) and "Big Bang Theory's" Jim Parsons
"Modern Family's" Eric Stonestreet (left) and "Big Bang Theory's" Jim Parsons
 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The race for comedy success is proving to be a slow but steady one for USA. Entering its 11th week in heavy rotation, Modern Family repeats are boasting double-digit ratings gains and new highs among targeted audiences.

USA's first bid to broaden its drama-heavy brand to include laughs, Modern Family is up 62 percent among adults 18-to-49 from its Sept. 24 launch, pulling an average 796,000 of those viewers in its ninth week -- the last before the Thanksgiving holiday. Multiple episodes have crossed the million-viewer mark in the key demographic on Fridays and Saturdays, the nights the 20th TV-produced ABC comedy has been particularly popular. Compared with the same time last year, USA's 18-to-49 reach has increased by just 3 percent. It's an improvement, however slight, over the hours the network recently devoted to aging procedurals NCIS and Law & Order: SVU.

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For USA, the improvements are crucial. The top-rated NBCUniversal cable network is spending as much as $1.8 million an episode on Modern Family, putting it in the same pricey pantheon as The Big Bang Theory and 2 Broke Girls when the latter goes to TBS in 2015. The gamble is part of a larger play to make USA a comedy hub ahead of its original forays in 2014, and has come with a $10 million promo campaign.

All the pomp and circumstance, which drove up ad prices during upfront negotiations, prompted eyebrows to raise when initial ratings fell far short of projections. Even as those numbers continue to climb, media buyers note USA still will have to give make-goods for the deficits.

"I think there's a little bit more optimism now than there was a month ago, but there's still a pessimism of the show ever achieving what USA guaranteed," says Sam Armando, senior vp and director of strategic intelligence at media-buying firm SMGx. "Because their projections were so high, people are focusing on that gap and calling it a concern or a failure. They were their own worst enemy."

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USA president Chris McCumber has noted that syndicated fare typically takes a while to catch on with audiences, and USA already is succeeding in bringing in a new crowd. According to Nielsen, Modern Family viewers are 12 years younger than the network's 2013 average of 53. And those youthful watchers are skewing more affluent, with adults 18-to-34 posting a median income of $59,300.

Meanwhile, Modern Family is further proving itself in its syndicated run on Fox stations. Recently averaging a 2.8 rating in 18-to-49 for the entire week, up 17 percent from the premiere, the Emmy-winning comedy now is besting everything across syndication aside from the seemingly unstoppable Big Bang Theory.

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