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USA's view from the top

TELEVISION & RADIO

The cable network is a success thanks to its president and a few peculiar characters.

March 26, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- When USA Network holds its annual upfront presentation here this evening to pitch advertisers on upcoming programming, the cable channel won't just be spotlighting its new development slate.

Also on display: the triumphant four-year tenure of its president, Bonnie Hammer, who helped USA regain basic cable's top perch.

The channel brought in nearly $700 million in profit last year, an impressive amount even compared with the broadcast networks, including NBC, its corporate sibling, which made about $300 million. USA's success has helped lift Hammer's fortunes as well. On Monday, NBC Universal announced it was expanding her domain by giving her oversight of a new cable studio split off from Universal Media Studios and putting her in charge of "emerging" cable channels such as Chiller and Sleuth.

The only thing surprising about Hammer's new responsibilities is that she didn't get them sooner. Since the television veteran took over USA in 2004, it has shaken off its reputation for stale programming and reinvigorated a graying audience with younger viewers.

By wooing World Wrestling Entertainment back to the channel and promoting the likes of Tony Shalhoub's obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk as part of its "Characters Welcome" brand, USA reclaimed the top spot in prime time on ad-supported cable in 2006 for the first time in six years. Last year, the channel beat its competitors again with a record average of 2.7 million viewers.

So far this quarter, USA's audience is up 7% over the same period last year to nearly 3 million viewers, putting it ahead of the broadcast network the CW for the first time.

"It's probably become the single most important entity within the entire portfolio" of NBC Universal, said Jeff Zucker, the company's chief executive.

At tonight's presentation at a posh Midtown restaurant, USA executives will preview four new series built around the kind of quirky characters that have become the network's calling card.

But that doesn't mean shows like "The Nanny Files," featuring a young nanny-turned-detective, or "Royal Pains," about a concierge doctor in the Hamptons, will make it on the air anytime soon.

Recently launched series such as "Psych" and "Burn Notice" have done so well that USA doesn't have much room on its schedule. The network has yet to even make any pilots out of the five projects it promoted at last year's upfront. Its newest drama, "In Plain Sight," is premiering June 8, more than two years after it was put into development. The only other show scheduled to debut so far in 2008 is this fall's "The Starter Wife," based on the miniseries that aired last summer.

"We're in a tricky position because we've had so many things that have succeeded that we only have slots for a certain number," said Hammer, who also oversees the Sci Fi Channel, in an interview last week in her immaculately appointed 21st floor office in Rockefeller Center.

As she spoke, the door suddenly burst open. Actor Edward James Olmos, who stars in Sci Fi's "Battlestar Galactica," bounded into the room. He gathered the petite executive up in a bear hug, planting kisses on both her cheeks.

"I'm sorry to break things up, but I couldn't leave the building without kissing her," he said with an apologetic grin.

Hammer's bosses at NBC Universal appear equally delighted with her.

"I think every network can learn from what USA has done," Zucker said. "They know exactly who they are and what they want to be, and I think that all flows from the leader of the organization, from Bonnie."

Zucker has touted USA's limited pilot development as a model for the rest of the industry. In the last two years, the network produced just three pilots: "Burn Notice," which broke viewership records, the upcoming "In Plain Sight" and "To Love or Die," about a father-daughter contract killer team and still in contention to become a series.

Hammer attributes the network's ratio of success to a strict brand filter that is applied to all shows, which must feature likable characters.

"We can be a little edgy, but we're not going to be FX," she said. "We want things with a little bit of a blue skies. Which doesn't mean pap and 'Baywatch,' but it does mean that there's an optimism to it."

NBC is increasingly drawing on USA's stockpile of original shows to bolster its own schedule. This season, the broadcast network has run "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" after episodes premiered on USA. On April 6, NBC will begin airing the most recent seasons of "Monk" and "Psych."

Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, said that the network is also contemplating repurposing "In Plain Sight," which stars Mary McCormack as a U.S. marshal who works for a secret branch of the witness protection program.

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