TV On My Terms: USA Network - The Character Driven Network

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The world of television is at its core a business, and as a business money talks and…well, you know how the saying goes. I know next to nothing about the television/entertainment industry, only what I read and observe sitting in front of my Mac at my modest little desk in Texas, so my conjecture and commentary probably doesn’t matter. But I felt like I owed USA Network a little praise for helping me remember what “appointment television” is all about.

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From what I’ve observed, the larger networks are notorious for canceling a series after one or two airings if they deem the ratings too low, killing its chances of finding an audience and damaging the loyalty of viewers in the process. In most cases, unless you are a huge hit, or a formulaic procedural, you get at best a handful of chances to make an impact, and that’s it. While no doubt business matters and money factors into decision-making at USA, it seems to me that the “Characters Welcome” moniker doubles not only as a clever marketing slogan, but as a shrewdly thoughtful mission statement.

By only producing one or two pilots a year, USA is careful to invest in only the choicest of scripted programs which harmonize well within the tone and texture of their carefully calculated brand, and then provide nurturing support to allow the show to find and keep an audience. I like this because A) it proves that they have confidence in the quality and long-term potential of a show, so likely viewers will tune in and B) it gives me, the viewer, the comfort of knowing I can invest in the characters without fear of it being yanked after its second airing.

When I was growing up, I remember USA as one of those cable channels where you could find reruns of game shows or old television classics and movies. However, within last several years, USA has steadily produced some of the most colorful, sophisticated and relatable characters we’ve seen on TV in years, what with Adrian Monk, Shawn Spencer, Michael Weston, Neal Caffrey, and a gradually growing inventory of which to boast. Each has a distinctive personality that draws you in and makes an impression that keeps you coming back for more, and the plush back stories that are built to support these characters demonstrate the brilliance of the writers with whom USA collaborates, and that the writers have a solid grasp of who their audience is and for whom they’re writing these stories.

I certainly appreciate a network that understands I do have a brain and don’t need ten routine (read: boring) crime dramas which feature virtually the same cast of characters and follow the same fatigued methodology because I’m too lazy or too stupid to be able to comprehend anything else – L&O Criminal Intent notwithstanding.

In keeping with the aforementioned tone of the USA collection of series, each program, such as White Collar and Burn Notice, is essentially a drama (notable exceptions include Psych and Monk), but combines the right amount of action, involving plots, twists and witty dialogue all tempered by an intrinsic sense of humor. Admittedly, the modest slate doesn’t include any of what some would consider “poignant” shows such as “Lost” or “Mad Men,” but what USA shows may appear to lack in formidability, they make up for in spades with style, cache and good old-fashioned story telling.

Plain and simple, their shows are fun to watch, don’t take themselves too seriously, and for the most part can be enjoyed by the entire family, unlike some of the more adult fare on other cable channels (ahem, Ef-Ex).

In fact, the tone USA has set is so discrete, that the “USA effect” is beginning to be emulated by other networks. Case in point, TNT’s crime-caper series Leverage feels so much like a USA series that I’ve often turned to USA expecting to watch it there. Dark Blue, a TNT sophomore series, was deeply serious and dark in its first season, but has tried to emulate the USA feel by attempting a Wonder Twins-esque “form-of, shape-of” metamorphosis in its second round, with a result equally as lame as the psionic siblings. I read about a pilot for a new NBC show, Chase which at first glance appears to be a retread of USA’s In Plain Sight. Interesting…maybe big brother NBC is taking notice of the attention little bro USA is getting on the playground.

I’m also impressed that, to date, USA has not gone the path of reality programming. It’s a given that reality shows are cheap to produce and, if executed properly, have the potential to return significant dividends. However the key there is “executed properly.” There are a multitude of reality programs on TV these days, and probably five of them are actually smartly devised and accomplished pieces of entertainment. The vast majority is utter garbage, and 99% of the time causes me to pick up the remote. I hope that USA keeps true to their advertised focus on character-based programming. I would hate to see them denigrate their brand by wading into the cesspool of reality muck – WWE aside. For me that’s the one minor beef I have with USA, but I can let it slide as long as they continue to produce the enchantingly delicious scripted series I’ve come to enjoy so much.

Bottom line, USA appears to have its head on straight, because what they do, they do very well, and are reaping the rewards of a heightened reputation and loyal viewship. If only all of the larger networks would take a lesson, but then again if they did, USA might not seem as special.

Jeffrey Kirkpatrick is a TV Fanatic Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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