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This story first appeared in the June 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On June 24, USA network, long known for its “blue skies” shows, will roll out a series whose 64-minute pilot episode features only three seconds of blue sky.
Mr. Robot, a hacker drama with an anti-establishment lean, is as much a departure from USA’s past aesthetic as it is emblematic of its planned evolution into a destination for edgier, more serialized shows with, its executives hope, a younger-skewing audience. The risky change — USA, after all, is the crown jewel in NBCUniversal’s cable portfolio, generating more than $1 billion in profit in 2014 — coincides with a strategic shift from courting baby boomers with a mix of lighter procedurals to millennials, now the majority of the network’s target 18-to-49 demographic. But rather than try to replicate the bleak antihero formula that has lured the latter to AMC (Breaking Bad) and FX (Sons of Anarchy), USA president Chris McCumber is hoping to capture those viewers with series about heroes, albeit unlikely ones in worlds not entirely void of optimism.
“Millennials are bound together by a core group of values: the idea of perseverance, inner strength, self-confidence and bravery,” says McCumber, citing USA research. He’s betting they’ll find such themes as standing up to power and oppression relatable as they crop up in his new batch of originals, which also includes Complications, Colony and an adaptation of the Spanish novel Queen of the South. Internally, NBCU cable chief Bonnie Hammer has dubbed the new mantra “silver lining” programming because the characters demonstrate at least some faith in humanity.
Seeds for the shift were planted four years ago, when the network best known for the closed-ended Monk and Psych began embracing such serialized offerings as Suits, now its top-rated series, and Graceland. But Mr. Robot, which has earned early critical praise, is a considerably bolder step, as evidenced by its provocative “F– Society” marketing campaign.
“I never really watched USA,” admits Robot‘s first-time showrunner, Sam Esmail. For him, the network’s enthusiasm for his Christian Slater–Rami Malek project outweighed his apprehensions: “[USA is] at this moment where they need to shift gears, so it doesn’t feel like a risk,” he says.
Complications, which bows June 18, should feel more familiar to USA viewers, though it too has the hallmarks of the network’s new push. Creator Matt Nix, who was behind the USA hit Burn Notice, says his new show strays from the former’s initial formula in its bleaker setting (the pilot logs a mere 18 seconds of blue sky), serial storylines and less traditional characters. Nix was prepared for pushback from USA when he wanted the second lead of the series — Jessica Szohr, playing a nurse navigating gang violence with a doctor (Jason O’Mara) — to be a lesbian. “Their response was, ‘Oh cool,’ ” he says. “I don’t know that they would have said no before, but it would have been a discussion.”
The move follows a humbling 2014 for cable in general, with USA seeing its total viewership tumble 21 percent. The network’s recent drama attempts, including the quickly canceled medical show Rush and the low-rated adultery yarn Satisfaction, failed to draw Suits-like ratings, and USA execs hit the breaks on a comedy push after half-hours like Sirens and Benched sputtered. (Plans for more pricey limited series could be in question, too, after March’s Dig finished as the No. 224-ranked show of 2015 thus far, just behind Spike tattoo competition Ink Masters.) Worse, the network ceded its most watched status of eight years to ESPN.
“USA is part of the overall trend,” says Sam Armando of media-buying firm SMGx, who also cites TNT and Lifetime, among others. “But if their content is good, they can stop their bleeding.”
McCumber sees the tumult as an opportunity — if not a necessity — for innovation. At USA, that has meant not only rethinking what it programs but also how it launches and sustains its shows. Eager to get young eyeballs on Mr. Robot, for instance, McCumber’s team brought the pilot to the South by Southwest and Tribeca film festivals and slapped it online nearly a month early. (As of June 12, 1.3 million people had watched.) Complications, for its part, will debut two episodes on the linear channel, then release a third immediately after on video on demand. Both could benefit from USA’s increased reliance on events, too, including the younger-skewing WWE franchise, which the network hopes will prove a strong launchpad in the way Modern Family did not.
It’s far from a sure bet that new viewers will tune in, but, says McCumber, “If you don’t take the risks right now and you keep standing still, you will not succeed.”
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