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Surfin’ the USA

During last week’s Comic-Con in San Diego, more than 4,000 fans packed a convention ballroom for panels devoted to two top USA shows, the wry espionage thriller “Burn Notice” and the offbeat cop comedy “Psych.” At one point, an audience member wondered whether the “Psych” producers would ever do a musical episode, and the reply was that it all depended on Jeff Wachtel.

The pop-culture expo audience erupted into a roar, and Wachtel, smiling, rose and stood on his chair, eliciting louder cheers. “If you have a chance, touch his pecs,” James Roday, the show’s star, said from the stage.

A trim, balding man of 54, Wachtel, USA’s president of original programming, may not cut a particularly buff figure. But the cable network he helps oversee is flexing its muscles at a time when its parent company, NBC Universal, has mostly been in the dumps due to the ad recession and poor movie results.

USA has become a top-rated cable network with quirky, genre-bending shows such as “Psych,” about a Santa Barbara cop pretending to be a psychic, and “Monk,” about an obsessive-compulsive detective. This month it has been the most-watched cable network, averaging a record 3.2 million viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen Media Research, and has beaten its own in-house viewing records for 11 straight months. And today, the network is announcing renewals for two other successful series, the first-season medical drama “Royal Pains” as well as the network’s breakout hit, “Burn Notice,” which was cable’s No. 1-rated show last week.

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It’s quite a roll for a network that seven or eight years ago was, despite its history as one of the most established basic-cable outlets, best known as a depot for repeats of crime shows such as “Silk Stalkings.”

“When I got here, we used to joke that people came to us after the Food Network passed on their idea,” Wachtel, who joined USA in 2001, said in an interview. “That’s certainly not true anymore.”

Over the last few years, many basic cable networks have invested big money in developing original scripted programming, following the trails blazed by premium outlets HBO and Showtime. But USA has been more successful than just about anyone else, which has not escaped the attention of the advertising community.

“USA is doing great,” said Steve Sternberg, a prominent TV analyst formerly of New York ad giant Magna, who added that the network has “the secret of producing high-quality original dramas down pat. . . . I’m not sure USA has made any serious recent mistakes.”

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Wachtel is quick to credit his boss, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment President Bonnie Hammer, for the lion’s share of that success. Since adding USA to her portfolio in 2004, Hammer has encouraged the network to focus on developing shows that fulfilled basic genre commitments -- detectives cracking cases, for example -- but were also lighter and more humorous than viewers might expect. Also, the settings tend to be “blue sky,” in warm, sunny locales such as Miami and Santa Barbara. Programmers are encouraged to submit proposed shows to a checklist that Hammer calls the “brand filter.”

Wachtel said he was initially skeptical of the approach -- after all, conventional industry wisdom says viewers watch shows, not networks -- but has since become a convert. “It kind of becomes a launch pad for new ideas,” he says of the branding philosophy.

Now he’s become the network’s chief liaison to Hollywood’s creative community.

“They all know what they want USA to be,” Matt Nix, creator and executive producer of “Burn Notice,” said of Wachtel and his team. “There’s not a lot of internal dissension when it comes to the creative direction for the network, which allows you to focus on what you want to do.” Nix originally pitched the show as a gritty drama set in Newark, N.J. The network’s suggestions -- which included a lighter tone and the Florida setting -- made the series better, Nix said he ultimately concluded.

For Wachtel, 25 years in TV development, on both the network and studio sides, has given him plenty of experience in dealing with writers and piecing together series. During the ‘90s, he served executive stints at Columbia Television and the now-defunct Orion.

One early lesson came when developing a script about high schoolers in a small town with writer Kevin Williamson of “Scream” fame. Wachtel felt that for teenagers, the characters were too self-aware, too jaded, too knowledgeable about pop culture of decades past. In short, the executive felt, they sounded too much like Williamson. “Yes, but that’s the way kids want to sound,” Williamson replied, according to Wachtel, who said he relented.

The script became “Dawson’s Creek,” which was a huge hit on the WB network. “He was right, I was wrong,” admitted Wachtel, who has since spent much of his time trying to find writers with similarly original takes on familiar material.

The audiences for shows such as “Royal Pains” and “In Plain Sight” -- a drama about a female U.S. marshal in New Mexico that was originally developed for the CW -- still come nowhere near what the top broadcast series can do during the regular season. And to be sure, Wachtel and his team don’t have infallible instincts. An attempt to squeeze a series out of the successful miniseries “The Starter Wife” fizzled after just one season. And an Americanization of the dark British crime series “Touching Evil” garnered critical acclaim but low ratings. Wachtel believes in the latter case, the network simply strayed too far from its “blue sky” formula.

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But those are rare blots on USA’s recent record. Overall, cable has been steadily narrowing the audience gap; paradoxically, USA now routinely beats the CW. Also, because cable networks have a different economic model -- unlike broadcasters, they collect subscription income as well as money from advertising sales -- they do not need huge audiences for a show to be considered a hit.

As Wachtel put it, “We would much rather have an audience of 5 million people, each of whom will spend $100 on the content and things related to the content: DVDs, bobbleheads and books . . . than have a whole lot of people who kinda like it.”

The audience -- or that section of it that Wachtel & Co. are targeting, at any rate -- has validated that view.

During the Comic-Con panel for “Burn Notice” that was likewise packed with fans, the network showed a brief clip of upcoming scenes. Wachtel gazed back at the 4,000-plus faces in the crowd and then leaned over to a visitor.

“It’s completely quiet in this room right now!” he exulted.

scott.collins@latimes.com


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