March 8, 2021

USA Cable Channel Woos Back Some Viewers

Compared with the summer of 2009, its highest-rated so far, the channel lost 4 percent of its prime-time viewers and, more troublingly, nearly 10 percent of the 18- to 49-year-old viewers that advertisers pay a premium to reach.

So this summer, the channel spread the new seasons of its sunny and optimistic dramas across more nights than before and added two shows, “Suits” and “Necessary Roughness,” that were slightly more provocative than past shows.

The summer ratings, formally tallied this week, show that USA has recouped about half of 2010’s losses among 18- to 49-year-olds and all of its losses in its total viewership. The channel is expected to renew every one of the seven shows it featured this summer — giving its new parent, Comcast, early proof of its big bet on cable programming.

USA’s strength is emblematic of cable’s robust summer ratings overall, part of a generation-long trend away from broadcast viewing and toward cable viewing. Total time spent viewing television has risen again this year, even as slight minorities of people forgo owning televisions or subscribing to cable for economic and cultural reasons. And the reason is largely cable programming.

“Cable numbers are growing more than broadcast is eroding, which is why the overall number is growing,” said Jack Wakshlag, the chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting.

HLN, formerly known as Headline News, had its highest rating ever in July when the Casey Anthony verdict was announced; the Weather Channel attained a viewer record last Saturday when Hurricane Irene made landfall in North Carolina; and MTV had its highest rating ever last Sunday with the Video Music Awards.

For all of these cable channels, including USA, the challenge is to hold onto a core audience while broadening out to attract new viewers.

“This is a place that has built its success one show at a time,” said Jeff Wachtel, a USA co-president, in an interview at the channel’s West Coast office adjacent to the Universal Pictures studio here. He objected to suggestions that USA is a repetitive factory of dramas — “There is no formula!” was written at the top of his typed talking points for the interview — and instead said that the channel has a filter for aspirational, stylish shows.

That filter, said Chris McCumber, USA’s other co-president, creates expectations that benefit new shows. Referring to “Suits,” he said by teleconference from New York, “even if they don’t know anything about it, they’re more likely to check it out.” He added, “We didn’t see that kind of response six years ago.”

Under Bonnie Hammer, USA became the single most profitable asset within NBC Universal. After she was promoted to chairwoman of the company’s cable entertainment and cable studios, Mr. Wachtel and Mr. McCumber were named co-presidents of the network last March, two months after Comcast took control of NBC Universal. Already, USA has given Comcast an early success to extol to investors. Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBC Universal, said on an earnings call in August that “Suits” and “Necessary Roughness” were ordered “after the deal closed” and that they “now promise to be important new franchises for USA for many years to come.”

For years, USA’s closest competitor in prime time has been TNT, the drama network owned by Turner Broadcasting. But this summer, the History channel rose to No. 2, the result of hit reality shows like “Pawn Stars,” “American Restoration” and “Mounted in Alaska.”

History has posted 30 to 40 percent gains in audience two summers in a row, a remarkable feat. Nancy Dubuc, the president and general manager of History, said in an e-mail message that the ratings were “a clear indication we know what History viewers want and that we’re giving it to them.”

TNT, meanwhile, is down 2 percent among 18- to 49-year-olds in prime time this summer. TNT had a bigger new show this summer — the sci-fi show “Falling Skies” drew almost 3.3 million 18- to 49-year-olds each week, more than any of USA’s shows — but the rest of its schedule did not hold up as well.

Mr. Wakshlag said that repeats of acquired shows, like “Law Order” on TNT, are not as reliably popular as they once were, perhaps because such shows are replayed in other places and because there are so many original series competing for attention. USA attributed its declines last year to the same trend.

On the reality side, the only cable channel with a bigger hit than History is MTV, which has benefited hugely from “Jersey Shore” for the second summer in a row. It has had an average of 5.8 million viewers ages 18 to 49 this summer, more than 2 million more than History’s “Pawn Stars.”

Arguably the most notable decline on cable this summer was TBS, the comedic sister of TNT, which was down 20 percent in prime time among 18- to 49-year-olds. The channel is optimistic about the repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” that will come onto its schedule in the fall.

USA is moving into comedy, too. It is also developing reality shows and long-form events that allow it to be “a little bit edgier,” Mr. Wachtel said.

“It’s like any good financial adviser will tell you,” Mr. McCumber added. “You’ve got to broaden the portfolio.”

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