Nobody doubts USA Network's commitment to producing original movies. But while upstart competitor TNT seems to have chosen the high road with such films as "Orpheus Descending" from the Tennessee Williams play, some critics have wondered if USA is taking the low road with thrillers that include "Snow Kill," "Buried Alive," "Helen's Daughter," "Blind Vengeance" and "Wheels of Terror."
They're a genre package," said John McMahon, president of Los Angeles-based Wilshire Court Productions, which produces 10 movies a year for USA.
"I mean, USA didn't set out to do social issues or political movies or comedies," he said. "The mandate really is to make movies in the thriller, suspense, pure entertainment category. To try and do things that are a little Hitchcockian and different."
Two original movies premiere this month on USA. Wednesday night Robert Wagner stars as the scar-faced, cold-blooded assassin Raven in "This Gun For Hire." And on Jan. 23, Kathryn Harrold plays a seductive housewife who dupes a man (Jack Scalia) into murdering her husband in "Deadly Desire."
"Yes, some people feel we ought to be doing other kinds of movies," programming vice president David Kenin said. "The fact of the matter is, if you really look at the broad range of our offerings, we've really done more kinds of movies than it appears."
It's true USA had dabbled in capers with the miniseries "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less," in romantic comedy with "Matters of the Heart" and in tragedy with "After the Shock," about the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake.
But the bread and butter -of-the network remains its stomach-clutching heart-pounding thrillers, some of which have been well-received critically. It all boils down to marketing.
Last year's "The China Lake Murders," about a policeman who spends his vacations on killing sprees, received USA's best program rating ever an 8.4 (each rating point represents 931,000 households) for an impressive 13.5 share of TV audiences with cable. Overall, the "USA World Premiere Movie" on Wednesday nights is the network's highest-rated show.
"The first reason we make mystery or thriller or action films is because they appeal to broad audiences," Kenin explained. "Secondly all of our movies require repeat runs on the network, and there are some genres of movies that replay better than others. Finally, most of our movies must find a home in international television and on videocassette. They really like these kinds of films overseas."
Each USA film has a budget of about $2.5 million. The network gets the most bang for its buck by farming out many of the projects to companies that can make them in batches such as Wilshire Court and MTE, the television production division of USA co-owner MCA Inc.
"Our intent is to make movies and not telefilms," USA president Kay Koplovitz said. "We want them to look and feel like theatrical movies to our viewers. We haven't always succeeded, I think, but we try and give our movies a patina and a look and a pacing."