USA Network Looking to Build on Sunday Procedural Slate With 'Eyewitness'

 After Starz moved its originals from Saturday to Sunday to be part of the prestige conversation.
Christos Kalohoridis/USA Network

USA Network is investing in original scripted programming on Sundays, but it isn't for the reasons you'd imagine.

Two months after premium cable network Starz shifted its entire lineup of originals from Saturdays to Sundays to be part of the "prestige" conversation, USA Network is moving into the crowded filed but looking to draw a different kind of audience.

Already home to repeats of Law & Order: SVU on the night, USA announced Wednesday that its forthcoming drama Eyewitness would debut Sunday, Oct. 16 at 10 p.m. and creating a night of procedurals.

To hear USA and Syfy Entertainment Networks president Chris McCumber tell it, USA's move to replace Canadian import Motive on Sundays with crime thriller Eyewitness has nothing to do with being part of a night of programming that is home to critical favorites including Game of Thrones, Billions, Shameless, Outlander, The Walking Dead and Girls, among others.

"We decided to put it on Sunday. It's not exactly about opening up a Sunday night; it was because we've had Law & Order: SVU as a stack there the past few years," he told THR. "That does consistently well on Sunday nights. If we have a crime drama audience there already, why not put one of our new crime dramas in there among that stack and program directly toward that audience?"

Picked up straight to series in January with an eye on landing in the Sunday night procedural slot, the drama is based on the Norwegian crime thriller Oyevitne. It centers on two innocent teenage boys who secretly witness a shooting in the forest and barely escape with their lives. Desperate to keep their relationship a secret and in fear of being found by the shooter, they remain silent, but soon learn that what has been seen cannot be unseen and witnessing such a horrible event changes everything.

Julianne Nicholson stars as Helen Torrance, a former big-city homicide detective who left her harrowing career to become a small-town sheriff and loving wife. However, a gruesome crime thrusts her back into the traumas of her past — just as she’s begun her hardest case yet: being a foster mother to a teenage boy.

Helping USA's strategy for the show is the fact that its procedural audience is already familiar with Nicholson, who starred on Law & Order: Criminal Intent — repeats of which used to air on the cable network.

Eyewitness will take over the 10 p.m. hour currently occupied by Canadian import Motive with SVU repeats serving as the lead-in for the drama, with more of the Dick Wolf procedural running afterward.

"The Sunday night SVU stack has been one that we've consistently promoted — for example, we do stuff around different themes, whether it's hairstyles or whatever it is," McCumber said. "You've got an audience there leaning in to this kind of stuff. The way we schedule, we look at where can you find an audience that's already leaning in on that night. Mr. Robot on Wednesday when we launched it there last year paired well with Suits and we still see that now. The opportunity is you have an audience that's already leaning in, let's put the other show in there."

Asked specifically if he hopes Eyewitness would help open a night of prestige programming that in success could see the drama paired with other originals vs. syndicated repeats, McCumber was optimistic.

"Possibly. We'll see what happens. The only way you can tell is once you start programming it in and seeing how people react to it and being patient with it," he said. "If you look at the ratings for USA on a Sunday when we do stacks like that, you can see the build of the audience — starting at 5 or 6 p.m. and building all the way into the 10 p.m. hour and sometimes beyond that. We run SVU after midnight as well. We'll see how it performs there and if it works, great, and if it doesn't, we'll figure out another place for it." For USA, the Eyewitness strategy is similar to how the network originally scheduled critical darling Mr. Robot. McCumber notes the Emmy-nominated drama brings in the richest and youngest audiences of all of USA's originals and is paired with recently renewed Suits for a specific reason. 

"We saw great crossover between Suits. If you look at different pockets of the audience, Robot is one of the richest audiences we have, bar none, across the network with the highest income," McCumber said. "Suits is the second-highest income that we have. So we have a type of audience that already is leaning into this type of sophisticated drama. That's why that pairing worked for us and continues to work for us."

As for Mr. Robot's lackluster linear ratings, McCumber isn't worried.

"It has done amazing things for USA Network across the board and for our studio as well," he said. "The way we look at every original series now is how do you build a franchise out of that original series and do that across the network and with the studio. Those young and rich audiences aren't watching live TV the way that they used to; they're watching it on every other platform. Every piece of research we have — VOD ratings, all of last year — you can see that far and beyond of any show that's on USA Network is an ultra-time shifted show. When I look at Robot, I look at a big picture: We built and are continuing to build a franchise that's profitable, that's prestigious, that audiences love and we know they're really dedicated to. We keep building from there. The linear rating is one very small sliver, especially in this case."