With White Collar as criminally good as ever, Covert Affairs and Burn Notice serving up irresistible spy games, and the new Suits fitting great on the schedule, the cabler is having a moment. But as USA co-presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber point out, it’s the aggregate nature of multiple moments like this that enable the network to trumpet “unprecedented” success and “historic” ratings weeks.
TVLine spoke with the USA bosses, inviting them to survey their ever-expanding slate, cop to a recent risky gamble, size up the competition, and assess the state of the brand. Plus: What’s their message for the passionate — and patient! — Psych fans out there?
TVLINE | You’re coming off a rather impressive week – White Collar and Covert Affairs hit season highs, other returning shows showed gains, and Necessary Roughness and Suits both demonstrated strong retention from their premieres. What’s the mood there? Much back-patting?
CHRIS MCCUMBER | We’re feeling good. We have seven series [including In Plain Sight, Royal Pains and Burn Notice] on the air at the same time, so it’s just a matter of making sure was can continue this momentum. This is the first time the network has launched two new scripted series within a week of each other, and the volume [of programming] we have, we’ve never had before.
JEFF WACHTEL | The other thing that’s really exciting for us is the notion of sustained success. Not only is it seven series at the same time, but they’re series in different parts of their life cycle. Burn Notice came back in its fifth season as strong as it was in its first, creatively and in the ratings. White Collar, going into its third season, literally has never been better. Then you have these shows coming out of the gate, like Suits and Necessary Roughness, both of which are performing above expectations. So, it’s not back-patting, no. It’s more a sigh of relief.
TVLINE | Is there one success story you’re especially proud of?
WACHTEL | One thing that is almost beyond belief is in a world where one in every four shows that launches is successful, we have now – knock wood for Suits and Necessary – nine shows in a row [including Psych and Fairly Legal] that have launched successfully. Chris and I love what we do, and I think we’re pretty good at what we do, but I don’t know that’s ever been done before. Life is not perfect — Albert Pujols strikes out – but the fact that nine in a row have come out of the gate is testimony to the creative and marketing teams here, and the spectacular original vision of the shows.
MCCUMBER | Jeff and I look at each other every time before we launch a show and go, “Could this be the one that might not make it?” But we have confidence that everyone on the team has put every ounce they have into it. Everyone has a vested interest in seeing these succeed.
TVLINE | What would you say is the biggest risk you’ve taken as of late? A moment where you sensed you were flying a bit out of your comfort zone?
WACHTEL | Almost every time we do something, we feel that. [July 12] is the ninth anniversary of the premiere of Monk, and we remember senior management telling us back then, “You guys are crazy. USA is the network of Walker, Texas Ranger and JAG – no one is going to watch this show. Its too quirky, too idiosyncratic.” So Monk was a big swing. When we did Burn Notice, we were very nervous because we had The Starter Wife as the lead-in, so we were going from the back lot of Hollywood with Debra Messing to a back room in Nigeria with Jeffrey Donovan getting the s— kicked out of him! And right now, we think Suits is a staged risk, an incremental risk, but it’s a great show.
MCCUMBER | We’ve built this base of an audience that has an expectation about what a USA show is, and that’s what the brand is, so the risk we take is a calculated one. With Suits, you’ve got two characters who frankly you wouldn’t have seen on USA four or five years ago. One is a closer lawyer who’s not all that likeable at first, and the other guy’s been busted for selling pot. We push out against the brand while making sure you’re not alienating the base but growing it.
TVLINE | Do you find yourself programming to compete with the broadcast slate, or against fellow cablers, like TNT?
MCCUMBER | We think everyone is competition.
WACHTEL | We don’t think much about [cable rivals]. Look, you never know what’s going to happen, but we feel like we’ve lapped the field. We program from our gut with things that we really, really like ourselves; we program when we hear an original voice that does something in a different way; and we program to be true to our audience, which is what matters.
MCCUMBER | We start the discussion about every show the same way we did 10 years ago: “Do we love this? Is it something we believe in?” So it’s not about the competition but finding shows you love, finding them a great home on the network, and nurturing them year after year.
TVLINE | What percent of a show’s success do you attribute to the casting, versus concept?
WACHTEL | If I might, it would be casting versus writing; the concept is insignificant. The writer is almost half, and the cast is the other half. There’s a little bit about the concept, but it’s almost the excuse for the show to take place.
TVLINE | Speaking of casting: Any interesting anecdotes from over the years? Someone who lobbied hard for a role, anyone that came in from left field at the 11th hour…?
WACHTEL | [Necessary Roughness star] Callie Thorne is a wonderful casting story because our studio, our producers, were probably thinking it’d be nice to have a well-known actress. But one thing as a network we do is believe that TV makes stars; stars don’t make TV. And Callie is somebody who kind of came up through the system. She had been a guest star on three of our shows, so it was fun to find somebody who we knew from direct experience as a brilliant character actor on Royal Pains, Burn Notice, and a very sexy turn on White Collar.
TVLINE | “Characters Welcome” is about six years old now. Would you say your brand is as cemented as those of FX or AMC? Maybe more so?
MCCUMBER | Absolutely. When we look at the response our audience has to new shows, they already know what the brand is and they can tell us if a show fits into that brand. Even more importantly, when they hear about new show on USA, we hear them say, “Frankly, I don’t now much about this, but I know the brand, so I’m more likely to check it out.” That’s the real opportunity for you.
TVLINE | I’ve visited several of your shows’ sets, and the atmosphere is pretty much across the board happy, light. Is that reflective of USA’s “blue sky” mantra, or did you luck out with pleasant showrunners and cast?
WACHTEL | It does speak to the world that we’re trying to create here, as business leaders. We are in this fortunate place of being able to pick and choose who we want to be in business with, and in that equation talent had better always be greater than ego. Doing a television series is a long-term thing, and we’re going for it on every one of our shows, so you better put together a team that can function well over time.
TVLINE | You’ve been spending some coin sending Covert Affairs on location, to great affect, to Paris, Istanbul…. How did you make the numbers work, when other shows don’t seem to make the effort?
WACHTEL | We’d tell you, but then we’d have to kill you. [Laughs] Look, [executive producers] Doug Liman and Dave Bartis are the team behind Covert, and Doug knows how to make $100 million movies like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and he knows how to make independent movies like Go. He’s just brilliant, and they have figured out how to do it., Yes, we spend a little more money on Covert than on most of our other shows, but that’s in part because there’s a huge international appeal and the international market supports it.
TVLINE | The Psych fans I see commenting on TVLine seem to be feeling a bit strung along – they didn’t get a summer premiere date, and the “fall” timetable is vague. What can you say to appease them?
MCCUMBER | Here’s your scoop: We can confirm the month of October.
WACHTEL | The Psych fans are probably our most vocal and passionate fans, and I promise you we we’ll be giving them lots of goodies from now leading up to the premiere in October, including the appearance at Comic-Con, where we’re going to have a special surprise premiere of something. Believe me, we’re working hard to be sure they get little bits of their show and try to satisfy them as much as possible, because we know they have to wait a bit longer. It will be well worth the wait.
TVLINE | Will Common Law, the pilot you just ordered to series, be ready in time to pair with Psych? Is that the plan?
MCCUMBER | We don’t know yet. There are a lot of decisions to make there. It’s “to be determined,” let’s put it that way.
TVLINE | Where do you see USA Network five years from now? Are you programming six nights, year-round?
WACHTEL | Our target is not to be on a broadcast network schedule in primetime. We think the hand-crafted nature of our shows leads to the consistent quality, and you can’t overdo it. So, we don’t care about five-, six-nights-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year. We want to be a network that’s on all four seasons, and basically has a presence throughout the week.
MCCUMBER | We’ve been incredibly successful with scripted hours. Now it’s about trying to expand the variety of programming we’re doing. We’re looking at reality, half hours, maybe going back to event miniseries, things USA has done well in the past. We’re actually looking at Friday nights – could that be a place where we do some great branded programming, or movies? It’s about making sure we can build upon this brand and diversity the portfolio.
TVLine readers, what’s your current favorite USA series?