Characters, and Brands, Welcome

Road to the Upfront: USA Network

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The Player: USA Network
The Date: March 26, 2008
The Venue: The Modern, New York
Key Execs: Bonnie Hammer, president-NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studio; Jeff Gaspin, president-chief operating officer, Universal Television Group; Mark Miller, president-ad sales, USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel; Jeff Wachtel, exec VP-original programming, USA Network; Chris McCumber, exec VP-marketing, digital and brand strategy
The Food: A seemingly endless supply of appetizers, some of which were suspiciously similar to those of the Hallmark Channel, which hosted its event at The Modern the night before .
The Drinks: A wine selection that was also curiously similar to Hallmark's, plus a steady flow of champagne for the more sophisticated palette.
Bonnie Hammer (right), president-NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studio with 'The Starter Wife' star Debra Messing.
Bonnie Hammer (right), president-NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studio with 'The Starter Wife' star Debra Messing. Credit: USA
The Swag: A Flip video camcorder, presumably so guests could film their own videos and "show their character" on
The Ratings Game: USA finished 2007 as the top-rated cable network among adults 18-to-49, 25-to-54 and total viewers in primetime, according to Nielsen Media Research. In addition to mainstays "WWE" and "Monk," the network added three new hits to its lineup last year with "Psych," "The Starter Wife" and "Burn Notice," along with the high-profile "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" from sister broadcast network NBC.
Last Year's Take: USA saw a 5% spike in ad revenues year-over-year from 2006 to 2007, taking in $860.2 million last year.
The Digital Play: is the network's main hub for user-generated content and streaming episodes of its shows, but a fast-growing web vehicle for USA is its gaming site, Character Arcade. After launching in late 2007, the site recently accrued 14.3 million page views in February and was ranked one of comScore's top 50 gaming sites that same month.
The Buyer's Take: Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media, cited USA's 2005 rebrand under the tagline "Characters Welcome" as pivotal to the network's success. "They really have rebounded in recent years as a top-rated network. Shows like 'Psych' and 'Monk' have really put their original shows on the map. The new slate is kind of indicative of the direction they're going and what they see themselves as, which is a broad-based cable network," he said.

The lines between broadcast and cable continue to blur going into this year's upfront. TNT, TBS and ESPN can now confidently sell their wares during the same week as CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. Even a mid-size network like Bravo can beat a broadcaster on a Wednesday night with a flagship series like "Project Runway."

Aggressively hoping to lead that charge this year is USA Network, the top-rated cable network across all demos in prime time and home to broadcast-caliber shows like "Monk," "Burn Notice" and "The Starter Wife" -- not to mention its ongoing coverage of the WWE and its status as the new home to "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," a refugee from NBC.

Its ratings have also been consistent enough for CW to trail by double digits, as NBC Universal's new Cable Entertainment President Bonnie Hammer was quick to point out at Wednesday's event.

Now Ms. Hammer wants to take USA to an even broader awareness level. "We're setting our sights to make the Characters Welcome brand the most powerful brand out there -- the best brand in the entire media landscape," she said.
'Psych' star James Roday with exec VP-original programming, Jeff Wachtel.
'Psych' star James Roday with exec VP-original programming, Jeff Wachtel. Credit: USA

It's a bold statement for any brand manager, let alone a network head, but not one entirely without merit. For one thing, USA's multiplatform marketing campaign with Unilever's skin care brand Pond's for "The Starter Wife" is oft-cited as one of the templates for the new branded-entertainment marketing model, employing network, online and point-of-purchase elements to cross-promote two brands. Other recent branded integrations include General Motors Corp. and DirecTV with "Burn Notice," Kleenex and Windex with "Monk" and Alltel's sponsorship of the "Psych" animated commercial vignettes.

USA's new gaming site, Characters Arcade, has already racked up 14 million page views in its first three months of launch. Coming later this year, the network will launch three other Character Arcade initiatives under its new tagline, "brandwidth": Characters Unite, a pro-social campaign to promote tolerance and acceptance; The Character Project, a nationwide photo shoot searching for characters in all 50 states; and -- likely most interesting to advertisers -- Character Approved, a commercial engagement initiative designed to draw attention to specific ads, sometimes tailored to the client.

Chris McCumber, the network's marketing chief, said of the new projects, "USA's brandwidth is about the power of our character-centric brand positioning and what it can do to build our partner's brands and businesses in a meaningful way. Our brand, content and platforms are an open invitation for our clients to entertain, engage and dialogue with our audience -- our clients' consumers."

Up next on the programming front is a sextet of new and returning shows, starting with the police drama "In Plain Sight," starring Mary McCormack. The show will premiere on June 8 with limited commercial interruptions sponsored by Procter & Gamble. "Monk" will also return this summer for its seventh season, and will celebrate its 100th episode on Sept. 5. Also returning this summer are "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Burn Notice" and "Psych," as well as "The Starter Wife," which will go from miniseries to full-length in October with 10 episodes.
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