The USA Network is in the midst of a major face lift.
In the past, the highest-rated prime-time cable network was known primarily as the home of reruns of old series, lowbrow made-for-TV thrillers, feature films and a smattering of original series. But these days, USA is attracting Oscar-winning talent to its movies-of-the-week and has an ambitious slate of original series in the offing.
Rod Perth, president of USA Networks Entertainment, says viewers are responding to the channel's push for quality programming.
"The movies that we have done which are sort of high profile, well-cast, high quality have done very well in the ratings," he says. "We think our strategy is working."
The reason for it is much the same as at other cable channels that decide to boost original programming: "Ultimately, I think my mission here is to develop projects that somehow separate us from the pack," Perth explains. "Hopefully, over time, there will be a certain transfer of impression of what USA stands for. I think we are making great headway in that regard."
USA, which has 50 hours of new series in development, unveils its latest series, "The Big Easy," Sunday at 8 p.m. Based on the 1987 feature film, the New Orleans-based, one-hour action drama stars Tony Crane as the handsome, somewhat oversexed police detective Remy McSwain and Susan Walters as the object of his affections, federal attorney Anne Osborne.
Barry Corbin, who played ex-astronaut Maurice Minnifield on "Northern Exposure," co-stars as a colorful sheriff who is Remy's uncle. Jacqueline Zambrano, creator of the well-regarded 1994-95 CBS series "Under Suspicion," is one of the executive producers.
Perth, a former late-night executive at CBS, is the first to admit that the show is cut from the same mold as the crime dramas that viewers are used to on ABC, NBC and CBS. It was, in fact, originally developed at NBC, which ultimately passed on it.
"It's almost impossible to do different kinds of things than all [the other] networks," says Perth. "Everybody has done something at one time. What we try to do is look at things that are not on the air currently. I don't think 'The Big Easy' is on the air. It's unlike anything that has ever been on cable. It's a big, giant, network-quality production with a price tab to match. It's well-written, and it will grow and get better. It still has a few wrinkles in it, but that is the dilemma of not doing pilots. You go right from the script to the actual show."
Next month, the previously syndicated Stephen J. Cannell series "Renegade," starring Lorenzo Lamas, will air new episodes exclusively on USA. Also back with new episodes are the long-running USA series "Duckman," "Weird Science" and "Silk Stalkings."
In January, USA will premiere the series "La Femme Nikita," an action-thriller based on the hit French film about a woman (Peta Wilson) who becomes a deadly undercover operative.
Perth also is very high on another January premiere, "Rudy," an offbeat comedy about aliens who have come to Earth disguised as life-size puppets and find themselves appearing on a children's puppet show.
But two comedies that premiered last January, "Campus Cops" and "Weekly World News," were axed after their initial 13-week runs.
"We will take things off when they are not working," Perth says. "But having said that, we are far more patient than traditional networks, which is one of the ways we can attract really great writers and producers. 'Pacific Blue' is a great example of a show we think is great quality. I am not setting it up as art; it's just terrific entertainment. The ratings have been moderately successful, but we believe over time the show will catch. We picked it up for another 22 episodes. Whereas those two comedies we did last January just creatively didn't live up to our expectations."
USA also has been aggressive in snapping up exclusive rerun rights to the popular syndicated series "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess," as well as to "Baywatch," "Acapulco Heat," "Sirens," "America's Most Wanted: Final Justice" and "Top Cops." The network also purchased the nonexclusive rights to the popular CBS series "Walker, Texas Ranger."
Within 18 months, Perth says, he hopes to have at least three nights a week of original prime-time programming. "I hope that any failures we may have had during this transition are behind us and we have found a couple of shows that are hits and are taking hold."
As far as USA's movies, Perth's game plan is to make several films based on American classic novels. Last year, USA produced a well-received adaptation of Willa Cather's "My Antonia." Premiering in January is a new version of Carson McCullers' "The Member of the Wedding," starring Alfre Woodward and Oscar winner Anna Paquin ("The Piano").
"I tell you, getting her was just an extraordinary accomplishment," Perth says of Paquin. "An Academy Award-winning actress on the USA Network. Hello? I mean, that didn't happen before."
Hallmark Entertainment is developing four original movies for USA, including the channel's first-ever miniseries, Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," and a three-hour biopic on Louis Armstrong. And last month, USA announced that it is producing a film on the Unabomber investigation.
"There will be less thrillers," Perth says. "We won't be doing them just because they fit into a certain genre. Thrillers are great, but they have to be better scripts. We are not going to do just the same picture over and over again, which, I think, USA tended to do in the past. And with good reason: They worked in those days. They don't work anymore because everybody else tends to do them too."
\o7 "The Big Easy" airs tonight at 8 and 10 on USA; it will regularly air Sundays at 10 p.m.\f7