USA Network Pulls Away From Scripted Comedy, Ramps Up Drama Slate

EXCLUSIVE: USA Network is returning to its drama roots, refocusing its development on hourlong projects and scaling back dramatically on half-hour scripted comedies. The network remains fully committed to its existing comedy series, legal half-hour Benched, set to premiere October 28, and Denis Leary’s paramedic show Sirens, which has been renewed for a second season.

USA began pursuing a move into half-hour comedy after its big off-network acquisition of Modern Family in 2010. Looking for original companions to launch off of Modern Family repeats, the network began developing and piloting half-hour projects, and at the end of 2011, it hired a dedicated comedy executive, Melanie Frankel. In May 2013, USA greenlighted its first original half-hour comedy series in some 15 years: Sirens and Playing House, followed eight months later in January by the order of Benched. Since then, all the action has been on the drama side, with series orders to Satisfaction and Rush in March, followed by pilot orders to Stanistan, Mr. Robot, Colony and Queen Of The South, and I hear a fifth drama pilot order is in the works.

USA has released the majority of its existing comedy scripts. Frankel is still at the network but, given the fact that there is little comedy development to oversee, she is expected to look for opportunities elsewhere. Kyle Chalmers, manager of original programming, who had been working on both comedy and drama projects, is now focusing entirely on drama.

Why the change in direction?

In today’s fragmented cable universe, narrowing the brand has been the trend for networks to distinguish themselves from the competition. A&E recently started scaling back on scripted series to refocus on its signature unscripted fare. While USA did make comedy development a priority three years ago, the network gradually has shifted its attention back to drama. “Drama remains our core focus; we’re also dipping our toes into the world of comedy,” USA President Chris McCumber said at the TCA press tour in July.

hollowayUSA is planning a big move on the drama side. Word is the network brass are high on all four pilots that have been greenlighted, and with another one coming down the pike, the plan is to pick up as many of them to series as possible for 2015, which will have the most new drama series launches in the network’s history. The drama pilots also are pushing the USA brand in new directions — the Middle East-set Stanistan, alien invasion Colony starring Josh Holloway, computer hacking-themed Mr.Robot and The Queen Of The South, an adaptation of a Spanish novel that involves a Mexican drug ring.

royal-painsAdding to USA’s expected inventory shortage next year in the fact that, aside from Rush, which was cancelled, the network’s current drama slate is expected to stay intact. Suits and Satisfaction have already been renewed, with Royal Pains and Covert Affairs, both owned by the network, fully expected to join them soon.

Meanwhile, the acquired Modern Family, which triggered USA’s push in half-hour original development, has not been the monster off-network performer that for instance The Big Bang has been for TBS where it has been used to launch a number of original comedy series. However, it is bringing a younger and upscale audience to the network and, after an early hiccup when the show under-delivered the ratings promised to advertisers last season, it has become a profitable show for USA.

USA got off a decent start in original comedy with Sirens, which developed a loyal audience and averaged 1.6 million viewers and 880,000 adults 18-49, topping both recently renewed freshman FX comedies, Married and You’re The Worst, to rank as one of the top new basic cable comedy series this year. The other first-year USA comedy, Playing House, did not do well in the ratings though it was well received by critics. I hear its renewal odds do not look very good.

For networks, it always is harder to establish a comedy brand. It took multiple attempts for FX to do it. Also, nurturing a comedy hit often takes years, as was the case with FX’s It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

At the same time, USA found instant success this past spring with breakout unscripted comedy Chrisley Knows Best, which is set to return for a second season. It triggered pop culture buzz and delivered USA’s lowest median age. Chrisley Knows Best‘s success certainly opens the door for more alternative comedy on USA. I hear that the network is close to a pilot order to a semi-scripted comedy that would be a companion for Chrisley. I’ve learned that the project did not come out of the regular script development project but via a presentation.

There could be more of that. Word is that, while USA’s slots on the 2015 schedule are pretty much spoken for, the network’s brass are leaving the door slightly open for comedy, willing to jump in if the right project walks through the door.


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