USA Network: Show Me the Funny

Drama heavy rolls the dice on a new genre or two

USA Network on May 16 will make an upfront pitch to advertisers that will emphasize sitcoms and reality shows. Network execs acknowledge the need to branch out from USA’s successful original drama fare in order to maintain the top spot in the cable entertainment ratings game.

“We have a reservoir of good will,” USA co-president Jeff Wachtel told The New York Times’ Bill Carter. “Now that’s great, but it’s also a trap. Because if anybody imputes a formula to you, you really are in danger of being formulaic. We’ve got to challenge the audience.”

In the fall, USA will start airing Modern Family reruns, which the network bought in 2010 for $1.4 million an episode. USA’s plan is to market the hugely popular sitcom as if it were an original show, while building blocks of original comedy programming around it.

USA’s first foray into the genre boils down to a pair of prospects: Sirens, a Denis Leary-helmed show about paramedics, and Playing House, an offbeat female-oriented sitcom. Contextually, the latter may be a better fit with Modern Family. The network is also considering picking up ABC’s Happy Endings in the likely event that it is cancelled. (Since being shipped off to the Siberia, that is Friday night, Happy Endings averaged a dismal 0.8 in the dollar demo.)

The Modern Family gambit carries a number of risks. For the most part (The Big Bang Theory on TBS is a notable exception), broadcast repeats no longer drive cable ratings. And comedy is a hard nut to crack—despite branding itself as the “Very Funny” network for the better part of the decade, only one original TBS comedy (Men at Work) has delivered a mass audience.

For all that, USA remains the top dog in total deliveries, averaging 3 million prime-time viewers in the first quarter of 2013. It also rules the 25-54 demo, but it recently slipped behind TBS among the 18-49 set. 

The shift to comedy and unscripted series comes as rival nets are putting up huge numbers with their own original dramas. USA franchises like Burn Notice and Royal Pains do big business but don’t hold a candle to the likes of AMC’s The Walking Dead, History’s The Bible and FX’s slew of dark dramas. 

The relative value of unscripted programming and the seaarch for the next Duck Dynasty has inspired USA rivals TBS and TNT to double down on their reality ambitions. In the fall, USA will jump into the unscripted pool with a competition show called Summer Camp and The Choir, which can be described as “like Nanny 911 but with a choirmaster.”

USA this spring dipped a toe in the reality waters with The Moment, an aspirational series hosted by former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner and produced by Charlie Ebersol. After the first three episodes delivered an audience of 1.01 million viewers (or one-third of USA’s prime-time average), the show was shifted to Friday night.

Despite the competition breathing down its neck, USA remains all but untouchable where it counts most. Per SNL Kagan, the network in 2012 generated $997.6 million in ad sales revenue, making it the third-biggest earner behind ESPN ($1.72 billion) and TNT ($1.05 billion). With affiliate fees, USA’s total haul comes out to a cool $1.75 billion.