Sci-fi series puts USA in cable lead

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With "The Sopranos" vacating its hold on cable viewers in the all important Sunday at 9 p.m. slot, USA Networks has cleaned up with its breakout sci-fi show "4400." The series about alien abductions is described by USA Network as the highest-rated, most-watched series premiere ever on basic cable and is posting phenomenal numbers, boosting overall ratings at the NBC Universal-owned network.

The six-part series also has advertisers beating a path to Jeff Lucas, president of ad sales for all NBC Universal cable-entertainment properties. Movie studios-which had already bought airtime around "4400"-have swarmed to the series, eager to get in on remaining weeks. DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group is also supporting the show, according to Lucas.

no upfront presence

The series follows the return to Earth of thousands of people who've disappeared over the past 50 years. The title refers to the number of people who've gone missing. The series launched with a two-hour special July 11 and attracted 7.4 million viewers on its first outing-an impressive number for cable.

USA, however, didn't shop "4400" aggressively to advertisers in advance of its debut, unlike "5 Days to Midnight," which Omnicom Group's OMD acquired exclusively for its clients and which aired on sibling Sci-Fi Channel.

"It wasn't sold in the upfront. When we sold it, it was kind of vague series that people didn't know much about," Lucas says, adding that agencies bought it as part of third-quarter scatter. "It is great for us because it is totally advertiser-friendly. When programs grab ratings, [producers] push the edge in terms of content, but this pushes the edge in terms of creativity and imagination. So many shows go for cheap laughs and shock value." The channel is already negotiating for more episodes with Viacom Productions, which produced the show.

The surprise hit has averaged a 4.8 rating in households over the past three weeks. According to Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research and integration at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media, "It came out gangbusters and lost a little in subsequent broadcasts and has come back."

The series is also raising eyebrows since it has attracted an unusually high number of women. It gained a 1.9 rating for women 18-49 against a 1.6 rating for males 18-49. "4400" is USA Network's most-watched original event since the miniseries "Moby Dick" aired in March 1998, which averaged 10.4 million viewers over the two nights it aired.

Lucas added that the performance of "4400" has helped boost ratings for two other USA signature shows, "Monk" and "Deadzone." The third season of "Monk" is up 17% in households, while the third season of "Deadzone," is up 15% in households.

"They now have a real schedule, they have three real series and they can pair that with series like `Law and Order' which has a built-in viewership," says Koerner, who nevertheless wondered why a sci-fi series is airing on USA, when NBC Universal has a separate Sci-Fi channel.

top of the month

The show, developed under Michael Jackson, the now-departed chairman of Universal TV group, has also put USA in the No. 1 spot for cable prime-time rankings for the month. Overall household ratings in July grew by 42%.

USA averaged 2.6 million viewers in 1.9 million homes in July, according to USA Networks' ratings analysis.

The much hyped, "5 Days To Midnight" over its run reached only about 700,000 homes, and Lucas admitted to some disappointment. But he says it was still a positive experience for advertisers. OMD committed to a package estimated at around $3 million for clients including McDonald's and Nissan Motor Corp.

Mr. Lucas adds that he is close to signing on a sponsor for an upcoming original show, "36 Candles," starring Molly Ringwald, an update on the classic movie "16 Candles." The fourth quarter will also see the debut of TV movie "Frankenstein," backed by director Martin Scorsese.

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