The CMO Interview

How USA Network Built 'Character,' Ratings

Exec VP-Marketing Chris McCumber Credits Right Blend of Branding, Programming for Cable Net's Success

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- How much of a success is a hit show if no one knows which network airs it? In 2005, USA Network, owned by NBC Universal, was one of the highest-rated networks on cable that no one knew how to identify. Original series such as "Monk" and "The Dead Zone" were sandwiched between World Wrestling Entertainment matches and annual coverage of the U.S. Open and the Westminster Dog Show, with little connective branding thread to tie them together for the viewer.

Chris McCumber
Chris McCumber
This was a real problem for Chris McCumber, USA's exec VP-marketing, digital and brand strategy, that began to show up in audience research once the scripted dramas began finding a following. "Even though people loved 'Monk' and 'Dead Zone,' some people didn't know they aired on USA, and if they had any perception of the USA brand it was fairly negative. They were seeing it as a second-choice network," he said.

In July 2005, a new tagline and campaign, developed with Minneapolis-based branding agency Mono, "Characters Welcome," changed all that. Not only did it connect the disparate personalities on the network at the time, it also established USA as a broadcast-like destination that happened to be on cable -- and one that could bring in significant ad dollars, too: In 2009 alone, USA brought in $1.08 billion in ad revenue; meanwhile TNT hit $1.1 billion and TBS hit $817 million.

Since 2006, the network has achieved its highest ratings to date on the strength of original series such as "Monk," "Burn Notice," "Psych," "White Collar" and "Royal Pains" -- often out-ranking actual broadcast nets such as the CW and MyNetworkTV in the Nielsen ratings . USA just finished its fourth consecutive year as cable's most-watched network in prime time among total viewers, competing with cable giants such as ESPN, TNT and Nickelodeon in the process.

But ratings aren't the only metric sought by Mr. McCumber, who joined USA in 2001 after stints at MTV, Lee Hunt Associates and Razorfish. Since launching the Characters Welcome brand, the network has embarked on a series of strategic partnerships to extend the USA brand beyond the cable box. "The Character Project," for example, was a photographic series developed in partnership with the Aperture Foundation to showcase noteworthy photographers and portraits from across the United States through an accompanying book and multicity gallery tour. "Characters Unite" is a community-affairs initiative launched in January 2009 and designed to initiate town-hall discussions about important social and cultural issues. The initiative was accompanied by a documentary narrated by Tom Brokaw, "American Character Along Highway 50." "Character Approved" is a series of on-air vignettes spotlighting notable personalities in art, philanthropy, new media and film that recently held an award show in New York in partnership with Vanity Fair.

And with a measured media budget of $31.3 million in 2009, according to WPP's Kantar Media, Mr. McCumber, whose primary goals for the network include promoting its slate of original series, such as this summer's "Covert Affairs," will continue to be one of the most aggressive spenders in cable marketing this year. Ad Age caught up with him on the eve of Characters Welcome's fifth anniversary and talked about the importance of recognizable branding on cable, his "brand filter" and why a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit suggests his work is far from over.

Ad Age: What was your first indication that the Characters Welcome brand had taken off?

Mr. McCumber: I'd say about four years ago when we reclaimed the No. 1 spot [in prime time]. Success comes from the fact that the programming and the brand are one. The brand informs some of the programming choices we make. When you have a true symbiotic relationship between the shows you're developing and the show itself, it gives you something to work toward. Where USA was for the last 20 years, it was a ratings success but no one was able to give it a set of expectations.

Ad Age: With some of your recent shows of late, it's as if you've gotten USA's programming down to a distinct formula of quirkiness and style. Is there a brand filter that you apply when selecting shows for the network?

Mr. McCumber: Every show we do has brand attributes and criteria that we use when making decisions from programming to the marketing campaigns. First of all, having a central character with a unique skill set is key, as is being very blue-sky and positive. Where a lot of other places are going dark and crazy-edgy, we're much more blue-sky and aspirational. Everything has a touch of humor to it as well. "Burn Notice" originally took place in Newark, NJ, but when you apply the "Characters Welcome" brand filter to it, it takes place in Miami. There's some serious subject matter to it but also a wink to it. "Royal Pains" is the same way -- a central character who's very talented, very unique, and that environment happens to be the Hamptons. Within this environment, he's taking care of the richest of the rich while at the same time trying to help those everyday folks in the Hamptons. Even with the acquisitions we've made like "House," Dr. House is a quintessential Characters Welcome personality. And when we created the Characters Welcome brand we already had "Law & Order: SVU" within the family and "SVU" is a fairly dark, tough show. So the way we marketed it was focused on Mariska Hargitay's character and telling those stories through her eyes and attaching a little more to her backstory. We gave it a new spin we hadn't seen before.

Ad Age: Despite USA's increasingly high profile, your brand has still taken some good-natured knocks in pop culture. "Saturday Night Live" recently aired a sketch about a game show called "What Is 'Burn Notice?'" suggesting that your shows might not always register among upscale audiences on the coasts. Is that true?

Mr. McCumber: When a cultural icon like "SNL" talks about you, you've arrived. But actually "White Collar," "Royal Pains" and "Burn Notice" play well on the coasts, and when three of our shows went to the 10 p.m. timeslot this past quarter, we saw our numbers go incredibly younger but much more fluid -- the quality of audience greatly improved for all those shows. Our audience has gotten younger and much more affluent, and really plays across the whole country, frankly, as people start to sample our shows even more.

Ad Age: Not only is USA competing directly with broadcast networks these days, it's also vying for consumers' free time amidst myriad options online, at the movies, in print and now on the iPad. Who do you define as your competitive set?

Mr. McCumber: We look at our competitive set as being anyone out there trying to steal our audience. There are many different ways in which audiences can choose to be entertained, so Characters Welcome gives us a real blueprint and filter [with which] we can make a lot of our programming, marketing, scheduling and sales decisions.

Ad Age: What's the most important branding lesson you've learned to stand out in the media landscape?

Mr. McCumber: We've become a passions brand. If you can build a passion and build on what your consumer loves, if they're passionate and trust in the brand, it's more powerful than anything else. When we looked at USA, initially we didn't think we could do a passion brand because it was so broad. Niche networks are good at what they do because they're very specialized. With USA, if you cut off one part of the brand or programming, it's a big problem for your business plan.

5 TIPS

  • Create a brand with a filter. Without brand criteria, audiences won't be able to identify your competitors.
  • Go outside your comfort zone. Brand extensions that take your product into new areas can pay off.
  • Accommodate your consumer. Cater to your target audience in marketing materials.
  • Think upscale. Even the most mainstream products can attract a coveted audience.
  • Create a passion brand. Consumers will market for you if they're passionate about the product.
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