Entertainment A-List 2009

Entertainment A-List No. 8: 'Burn Notice'

USA Spy Thriller Doesn't Flicker Out in Sophomore Year

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The highest-rated original cable program in 2009 thus far was not TNT's "The Closer," FX's "Damages" or even Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants." USA's "Burn Notice" was that rare TV series -- cable or broadcast -- that actually grew its audience in its second season, culminating in a finale that attracted 6.1 million viewers and trounced all of cable in its timeslot and even half of broadcast, including ABC.

Bonnie Hammer
Chris McCumber

Bonnie Hammer and Chris McCumber

The secret to USA's hit espionage series? Updating a familiar concept not seen on TV in decades, courtesy of creator Matt Nix, who helped develop an innovative online gaming component to keep fans engaged in the storyline in between episodes.

Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, said "Burn Notice" achieved a rare halo effect of synching up with the network's brand strategy, "Characters Welcome," while still being an easy sell to viewers with a mix of comedy, action and "MacGyver"-like attributes. It also seems to have helped brand the network, which has often had a sporadic programming schedule of acquired dramas, movies and wrestling coverage.

"We like to say that the old USA before the 'Characters Welcome' re-brand was like our viewers' favorite old shoe. Maybe it's not a shoe they would wear outside the house, it's a little worn around the edges, but they were comfortable with it. They like having it around," Ms. Hammer said. "But 'Burn Notice' was like the Prada stiletto for us. ... The show hits multiple demographics.." *

General Motors was the driving force behind that fun ride Mr. Donovan's character, Michael Westen, takes throughout the series in his Saab, and online as well, where he drove his virtual Saab in the show's interactive game, "Covert Ops." The game was perhaps the biggest success story of "Burn Notice"'s second season, attracting 500,000 unique visitors to the site throughout its eight-week run and upward of 50,000 registered users playing the game for an average of 12 minutes. GM exceeded its initial expectations for the project by 400%, and ultimately generated more qualified leads for the Saab than it had cars to sell, said Chris McCumber, USA's exec VP-marketing, digital and brand strategy.

New set of wheels
Mr. McCumber said the network is currently in active discussions with GM about swapping in a new vehicle for Season 3, since Saab will be discontinued in 2010. Nationwide Insurance, however, has already signed on for a series of customized "spy tips," written by Mr. Nix and delivered by Mr. Donovan, to air during commercial breaks.

Audience for second season finale
Players of GM game "Covert Op 2"
Number of registered users who played game
When "Burn Notice" returns June 4, it will be accompanied by the premiere of a new series, "The Royal Pains," which was developed by sharing the show's tone, quirky sense of characters and blue skies -- both metaphorically and literally, swapping out Miami for the Hamptons.

"It's not that we're looking for another 'Burn Notice,' but it did inform part of this brand filter in that it gave us something we could use to talk to the advertising community about -- characters that were aspirational and have an original voice," said Jeff Wachtel, USA's president-original programming.

As for how the show achieved rare audience growth in its second season, Mr. Nix has a theory. It's due to what he calls the show's "serialized but missable" formula of 45 minutes of unique scenarios and five minutes of serialized plot. "If people miss an episode they feel like they can hop back in. If they jump in halfway through the season, they don't feel like this is somebody else's show. It's rewarding to watch every single one -- it feels like you should watch all the reruns to catch up on what's going on."

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Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, Bonnie Hammer's quote comparing USA to "our viewers' favorite old shoe" was in reference to the network's old programming lineup before its "Characters Welcome" rebrand in 2004, not the current programming slate.

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