After making a small splash in the independent film market with their 1995 feature "The Grave," twin brothers Josh and Jonas Pate currently find themselves cranking out episodic television--namely, the cop/science-fiction hybrid "GvsE," set to debut Sunday on the USA Network.
This is not exactly where hot young filmmakers aspire to be--turning shows around in seven days, on a budget, according to a source, of $600,000 an episode, which is paltry compared to the production costs of hourlong series at the broadcast networks. But it has forced Josh Pate to adopt a certain admiration for the vagaries of producing for cable TV.
"You get a weird respect for [shows like] 'Xena,' " Pate says, referring to another USA series, "Xena: Warrior Princess." "They [shoot] that in eight days and it doesn't actually suck."
Stephen Chao, USA's recently installed head of programming and marketing, isn't about to put "USA: It Doesn't Actually Suck" on any promotional T-shirts, but Chao is nevertheless used to being damned with faint praise. As a programmer at Fox in that network's formative years, he was behind the early '90s lowbrow hits "Cops," "America's Most Wanted" and the dating game "Studs"--all cheaply produced shows that brought Fox ratings and Chao the kind of enfant-terrible infamy he seems to relish.
Now his task is to strengthen USA's position as virtually the only general entertainment network in a cable landscape of niche programming while not appearing to be, as Chao puts it, "network lite."
Brought in a year ago by USA Networks Inc. owner Barry Diller, his former boss at Fox, Chao doesn't harbor illusions about growing USA's original prime-time programming to seven nights a week. But he does see room to grab those viewers currently feeling disenfranchised by the broadcast networks' fixation on teen and 20-something melodrama. And even if he is limited by the economic realities of heading a cable network, he looks at what the big boys are doing and sees financial waste and diluted product.
"The television mainstream right now at the networks is defined by the [Steven] Bochcos and the [David] Kelleys, and they're tied up, I can't afford them; [there are] any number of reasons why they aren't on USA," he says. "They wouldn't want to, the economics aren't right. So your world gets defined by who you can get and who you can't get."
"GvsE" (G versus E, as in good versus evil) is the second series to debut under Chao (the variety show "Happy Hour" was launched several months ago), and if nothing else it offers an alternative to USA's lineup of babes fighting evil, a roster of shows that includes "La Femme Nikita," "Xena," and "Pacific Blue." In the otherworldly "GvsE," Clayton Rohner and Richard Brooks co-star as dead guys brought back to life as cops hunting down minions of the devil, a premise last seen in the short-lived 1998 Fox series "Brimstone."
Gritty L.A. Show in 'X-Files' Style
Set in Los Angeles, the show goes for a style and tone that's somewhere between "The X-Files" and "Pulp Fiction." The dialogue is clipped and smug, the look meant to reflect the gritty urban underbelly of L.A.
Pate calls "GvsE" "deconstructed science fiction" in the mold of the dark comedy "Men in Black." Chao, for his part, is loathe to call "GvsE" anything--it's just a show he liked, written and directed by a pair of filmmakers in their 20s who had a quirky idea for a TV series. With a Harvard master's in business administration among the credits on his eclectic curriculum vitae (by contrast, he worked briefly at a Redondo Beach McDonald's after being fired from his job at Fox), Chao, 43, is at first glance a more interesting character than any of those who reside on his network.
With Diller, Chao enjoyed a colorful tenure at Fox, which ended when he was fired by his onetime mentor, News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch, after Chao gave a presentation at a Fox corporate retreat that included a performance by a male stripper. In part because of this maverick history, Chao carries a certain cachet among young show creators, including "GvsE's" Josh Pate.
"He's just the coolest executive in town," says Pate. "He's just a really fun, semi-crazy guy. He's such a card, he's such a character. You need that."
USA has ordered 13 episodes of "GvsE," and Chao says the network will evaluate its progress based on its creative maturation, not necessarily its audience growth, though he adds: "Under no scenario would I want an artsy show that isn't commercially successful."
Still, on a network whose ratings bread-and-butter are telecasts of World Wrestling Federation matches--which consistently draws the biggest audience in cable and in the last quarter put USA ahead of UPN for average total audience--Chao says ratings won't be the first and only criteria for the life of original series such as "GvsE."