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Network of the Killer Bs

August 09, 1992|MICHELE WILLENS | Michele Willens is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

New York — It was a momentous day at the headquarters of the USA Network. One of the cable channel's "World Premiere Movies" had been reviewed in that morning's New York Times. That, in itself, was a first. Furthermore, it was a good review. That left the troops downright depressed.

"First, when I opened the paper, I thought, 'Oh God, please don't review it,' " says Dave Kenin, USA's executive vice president of programming. "And then when it was positive! When reviewers hate our pictures--which is most of the time--that's great for us. But good reviews and good ratings don't usually walk hand in hand."

Welcome to the in-your-face network. USA, which recently observed its 12th birthday, has its own philosophy and its own agenda, and it works. The network lives simply to give a good time. It counterprograms--or "counterpunches," as founder and chief executive officer Kay Koplovitz calls it--with a vengeance. It has something for the kiddies, the jocks, the single yuppie who wants to snuggle up with a carton of Haagen-Dazs.

And it has those movies. The ultimate in high-low concept, they come right out of the world of Robert Altman's film "The Player": " 'Working Girl' meets 'Sybil' " could sum up "Body Language," for example, a July movie that teamed Heather Locklear and Linda Purl in a story that USA described as "a businesswoman hires a secretary whose jealousy builds until she experiences a psychotic break and usurps her boss's identity."

"Generally, there is nothing redeeming about our movies except the pleasure of being told a good story," Kenin says. "We look mostly for suspense dramas that are pure entertainment. Most focus on intense close-ups of people in crisis."

In an earlier era, they would have been called B-movies: the quickie films churned out to fill double bills. "The Lookalike" starred Melissa Gilbert as a woman haunted by the recurring presence of her dead daughter. "Murder by Night" featured Robert Urich as an amnesia victim who is the police department's only witness to a murder. "Nightmare on the 13th Floor" offered Louise Fletcher and James Brolin as members of a satanic cult. Then there were "Curiosity Kills," "Murderous Vision," "Snow Kill," "Fatal Exposure," "Dangerous Pursuit," "Dead Reckoning" and "Hitler's Daughter."

Is the pattern becoming clear? USA movies, which premiere on Wednesday nights at a rate of about two a month, usually feature TV names in the cast, provide lots of action and not much script, and receive the kind of reviews that would send most of us packing ("stupefying walk-through of a telepic" and "a monument to video schlock" are but a few excerpts from recent reviews).

As Kenin explains, he knows his audience and what it has come to expect from USA movies, which the network has been producing since 1989. "They've already voted a million times," he says, referring to the movies' average rating of 3.8 to 5, which, in cable numbers, is big time. Clearly, the basic-cable network has amassed a loyal following among the 63% of U.S. households that receive it.

Angie Dickinson, who has starred in two USA movies, says she recently took a cruise and was frankly stunned and relieved to see the response she received: "I thought I'd have to explain that it wasn't the newspaper (USA Today)," she says, laughing, "but these folks said, 'Oh, I watch USA all the time.' And there were 1,200 of them!"

With HBO, Showtime, TNT and Lifetime also producing their own original movies, USA realizes the advantage of sticking to some kind of identity, even if that means distinguishing yourself by being undistinguished.

"I think they've positioned themselves very cleverly," notes Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker. "They don't have the budgets (average $2.5 million) to do the classy stuff, so they've taken the low road." Tucker does review most USA movies, though without much relish or optimism: "I can't afford to be a snob about it, because you never know when they'll be OK."

Although USA movies tend to feature stars of the fading--or at least stalling--variety, the network has been able to nab some stellar names occasionally. Even those who had some skepticism of their own.

Such was the case with Martin Landau, who, fresh from two Oscar nominations, received the script for "Legacy of Lies" (that's the one that garnered the good review in The New York Times in April). Television was OK, he thought, but the USA Network?

"I knew most of the stuff I'd seen on the channel I'd never be interested in," Landau explains. "But I must say I was surprised by how intelligent the script was and how well it moved."

Still a bit hesitant, he looked into who would be directing and who else would be cast. Eli Wallach and Michael Ontkean had been approached and, Landau says, "We all said, 'I will if you will.' "

Other actors respond to USA offers because the network casts creatively, allowing them to break out of the molds in which they've been stuck.

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