In a summer stuffed with more TV options than ever, the most buzzed about show wasn't Orange Is the New Black or True Detective, but Mr. Robot, USA's acclaimed new hacker drama. An antithesis to USA's usual "blue skies" formula, Mr. Robot grabbed fans early on (its massive prelinear debut drew 2.7 million viewers) including Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Averaging 1.2 million in adults 18-49 each week in live-plus-three, it helped make USA summer's No. 1 cable entertainment network in the demo. The network also found success with another inventive experiment: a new VOD windowing strategy for Season 2 of comedy Playing House, in which each episode debuted on VOD a week before airing on USA. President Chris McCumber talked about the network's transformative summer.
Adweek: Mr. Robot was such a different show for USA. How did you draw in viewers?
Chris McCumber: When we saw the pilot we were blown away, but we also thought, this is very different than what we've done before, so we have to go out and launch this in a completely different way. Alexandra Shapiro, USA's head of marketing, had the brilliant idea to do a wide, prelinear launch across digital. So we put it out on every platform you can think of, including Facebook, which we'd not done any long form on. And the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Then you renewed the show for Season 2 before it had even debuted on the network.
We're taking the long-term view on the show. Looking at what we have right now, we think we can grow an asset that will pay off in the end. Part of the equation is that we also own the show and so we have an extra added incentive. And part of this is we also really believe in the show. When [creator] Sam Esmail pitched it to us, he had many of the seasons already planned out, which gives you a real sense of trust in that vision.
How did you take advantage of the buzz as it built this summer?
For us it's how can you give the audience as much access to that show? Because the more that you do that, the more they become dedicated fans. We've been looking at how we window this on the linear channel in a different way. In the past we'd say, "OK, we're going to always show the current episode of that week." But we've been showing the pilot much more so than we've done in the past. And in the fourth quarter, we may run Mr. Robot Season 1 again.
Were any advertisers skittish about the show's anti-corporate message?
No, we've only had more demand for the show. Quality brings the advertisers in. They know this is a real quality show, like nothing else on television, and they want to be a part of it. It's been more than a sellout, so it's great.
After the tragic on-air shootings in Virginia Aug. 26, what prompted your decision to delay that night's Mr. Robot season finale for a week?
The finale contained a previously filmed scene that was graphic, and we felt it was too similar in nature to the tragic events that happened that morning to air that evening. To be sensitive and respectful to the victims, their families and colleagues and our viewers, we decided to delay our episode by one week.
A month in, how is your Playing House VOD play shaking out?
We're still gathering numbers, but we've seen a 60 percent rise in VOD versus last year, and all signs we're getting from Xfinity and Comcast seem really positive. This is part of our drive to do original series in more innovative ways. That audience is young and richer than a lot of other audiences we have, and we're able to go to advertisers and say: We can give you this very high-end audience who's dedicated to the show that's high quality and people are clamoring for. You're able to put together a package around this innovative window.
When WWE SmackDown moves to USA from Syfy next year, you're going to use it to launch your new sci-fi drama, Colony.
[USA's WWE] Raw ends at 11, but SmackDown has always been an 8 to 10 show, so that's always been the plan, to use that as a lead-in. As we were looking at what could be a compatible lead-in for Colony, that WWE audience is very broad and really reflects America. And the type of audience that watches WWE also tends to watch stuff that we feel is compatible with Colony.
Does Mr. Robot's success this summer change USA's course?
When we started our development cycle almost 18 months ago on the shows that are coming out, we had a very clear vision about what we wanted to do: create shows with unlikely heroes in extraordinary circumstances. And we wanted to do shows that you can't find anywhere else because these days, with the amount of television on the air, you've got to be unique to stand out. Now you're seeing the fruits of that. So this has always been part of the plan.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.