Of all the networks on TV, USA is my favorite. It's not the "best," in that it doesn't air the shows that win Emmys or top critics' year-end lists. But I've always admired the way USA changed its approach to program development during the "Characters Welcome" era (which basically affected every show that followed Monk and The Dead Zone, but especially took hold after the successful launch of Psych). For more than a decade, USA has put a lot of effort into understanding its audience, and into creating the kind of shows that fit that audience. Sure, a lot of USA series can feel same-y, especially in their debut seasons, but quite often, they go on to become some of the more underrated shows on television. In fact, I'd argue that Monk, Burn Notice, White Collar, and Suits have, at different points in their lifespans, belonged in the discussion of best shows on the air.
But now that every channel on our cable packages (not to mention all our favorite video-streaming services) is producing original programming, staying put isn't always the best move. Some of USA's longest-running series are ending (Burn Notice) or clearly winding down (Psych, Royal Pains), and the network very aware that its now-recognizable "blue skies" formula isn't going to work forever. After a few years of suggesting that things might change, USA has actually followed through on that notion in 2013. The network finally picked up some comedy projects (and with high-profile names attached!), committed to a new sci-fi show produced by Gale Ann Hurd, invested in a big promotional push for two summer reality shows (The Moment and Summer Camp), and announced plans to try daytime TV in hopes of filing out what's for years has been an almost exclusively drama-filled programming slate.
Perhaps most importantly, the network spent much of the early summer positioning Graceland as a step toward a different kind of USA. Before its premiere, Jeff Eastin's undercover agent drama was repeatedly referred to as "darker" than the typical "Characters Welcome" fare. Those headlines bothered me because it's not like previous USA shows have been completely devoid of "darkness," and because Graceland has only sort of delivered on that PR-enabled promise (I like the show just fine, but it's more of-a-piece with the network's other shows than was inititally suggested). Still, I've been trying to determine whether USA's buzzwords worked on audiences or not. The fact is, Graceland's ratings haven't been that great. Was the bluster about darkness a turn-off for audiences who love White Collar? Or is Graceland, like Common Law and Fairly Legal before it, another sign that viewers are growing bored of the USA formula? Either option has to be worrisome for the network that has topped cable ratings for seven straight years.
Time for a Transition
This isn't my attempt to boldly claim that USA IS IN TROUBLE, or that the network sucks, or anything along those lines. Suits is finding its awesome groove like USA shows do, Psych's seventh season was as fun as ever, Burn Notice's final run has been a nice return to form after some "meh" recent seasons, Covert Affairs keeps finding ways to improve, and White Collar will hopefully pull itself out of that weird Season 3 funk. Royal Pains and Necessary Roughness aren't for me, but they have their fans, and their ratings are generally solid enough. But all of these shows are at least three years old, and as I noted above, some of them are on their way out. Combine that with the fact that three of USA's last four scripted shows—Fairly Legal, Common Law, and Political Animals—didn't last very long (no, you can't convince me that they only wanted to do one season of Political Animals), and things get a little more troubling.
But instead of looking at USA Network's current lineup as a reason to worry, maybe we should recognize that this is what happens to networks; they all go through low spots and awkward transition periods. Even the vaunted HBO bumbled its successes in the mid-aughts, and it took True Blood, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire to pull it back to the top. Although The Shield buoyed FX for a long time, that network struggled to develop one great show after another until Damages and Sons of Anarchy came along. And while USA hasn't reached the same creative highs and critical acclaim as HBO and FX, its ratings have been supremely impressive. I don't know if a competitor will knock USA off its Nielsen perch anytime soon (wrestling certainly helps USA in this regard), but it's clear that the network is the midst of some change, change that's probably needed. It wouldn't hurt to mix in a sitcom or a high-concept sci-fi drama with the quips and sunshine. Nevertheless, I hope that USA can find a way to redefine itself without straying too far.
AIRED ON 1/30/2014
Season 5 : Episode 13