Brand transition? — On what’s at stake for USA Network this summer

I am entirely enthralled by television network/channel branding. You might know this about me. You might also know that I’m writing my MA thesis on the topic, specifically USA Network’s branding. USA is such an interesting case because they are just so damn successful, even though up until now, their programming has been generally formulaic. And when I say “formulaic,” I don’t mean it in a bad way. The blue skies, sunshine-drenched escapist (but not mindless) fare with a Character at the center is not only successful, it’s appealing. I’ve watched most of the channel’s scripted offerings in the “Characters Welcome” era and the ones I don’t keep up with regularly, I still mostly like.

With all that said, I’m really intrigued by USA Network’s two new series debuting soon, Suits (Thursday night) and Necessary Roughness (next Wednesday). From a distance, these two series look moderately interesting and they both feature some usually-solid performers. So, you know, like any other series before it actually airs. But what piques my interest about Roughness and Suits is the reaction, both from critics and audiences. I’m not expecting anyone to declare either series a major revelation or a 2012 Emmy contender or something. No, I’m really psyched to find out how folks respond to the programs because of what they may or may not signal for USA Network and its brand moving forward.

If you’re unaware, USA Network is a dominant force on cable. It has been the number one cable network in the ratings for the last five years and we can probably assume that they will take the crown again unless Burn Notice, White Collar and Royal Pains suddenly tank with viewers this summer. With audiences, USA is successful. Critics are less warm on the channel, but there is definitely a substantial amount of support out there for Burn Notice and White Collar and I don’t think anyone would say that USA Network puts out a terrible product. USA knows what it is and what its audience wants and up until recently, that middlebrow fare has been driven by quirky crime-solvers. Again, this is a very, very specific formula that USA Network has been working with for the past six or seven years.

But in order to avoid sameness and complacency, USA clearly made a decision to step outside of the quirky crime-solvers formula with its recent development cycle. It’s important to note that USA Network has only cancelled on series in the “Characters Welcome” era that was The Starter Wife, something that was A.) entirely off-brand and B.) extended out of a successful miniseries and therefore feels like a quasi-aberration. Nevertheless, Royal Pains was the obvious first successful step of taking the brand away from murders and law enforcement-types, but USA smartly connected the series to its seasonal strengths that it feels like it was bound to be a success.

Earlier this January, USA debuted its first legal drama in Fairly Legal and the results were less palpable. The reviews weren’t awful, but they certainly weren’t glowing either. The ratings were similarly “OK,” but I we can certainly give the series some benefit of the doubt there since it was the first ever USA scripted effort to debut at that time of the year. In general, I think most would agree that the series was just kind of a mess. Sarah Shahi is wonderful, but there was nothing else backing her up. Of the episodes I watched, that was certainly the case. It also felt like the series was straining to fit inside the constraints of the brand formula, particularly with the pointless brother (poor Ethan Embry) and ongoing story with Kate’s father. Fairly Legal felt like USA-by-the-numbers and when it was renewed for a second season, stories about a retool quickly followed. At least USA’s willing to admit its errors (unlike AMC with The Killing, for example) but the lukewarm reception and quality of Legal do tarnish the brand, if even a bit.

That brings us to this month and to Necessary Roughness and Suits. Like Fairly Legal, both of these series fall outside some of the general boundaries of USA’s brand formula. In case you don’t know, Necessary Roughness follows a sports therapist helping a football team and Suits features a big-time lawyer mentoring a genius who never went to law school. Audiences have already reacted somewhat negatively to a USA legal drama and the therapist profession is completely new to USA’s brand and its audience.

On the surface, Suits has more going for it considering that the series is clearly trying to play on the White Collar dynamic and aesthetic (setting included), but there are no guarantees. Reviews have been pretty solid. Necessary Roughness feels like an especially risky offering, if only because USA’s woman-fronted series haven’t been as successful as the ones with leading men, for whatever reason. I am also unsure of how Roughness will look on an episodic basis and that is such an integral part to the USA Network formula. The series could be fantastic and I totally plan to watch it, I’m simply very weary of what it looks to be and how that fits in with the larger fabric of USA.

Here’s the thing: Royal Pains moved outside of the “crime solvers” realm, but it still kept all the other important elements of the USA brand formula around (setting, sunshine, aesthetic, general story patterns), which perhaps helped guide it to success. Or maybe people just love doctors. Nonetheless, this is an important time for USA right now. All of its veteran series are still doing well and within the industry, their profile seems to still doing just fine. But there is an apparent attempt by USA to step ever so slightly outside of the fruitful, formulaic confines they’ve established over the last half-decade. And if either one or both these new series don’t hit the mark, they could join Fairly Legal in retooling or they could join The Starter Wife on the scrap heap.

Either result is kind of bad for USA. A few months ago, they unveiled this massive development slate that includes their first half-hour sitcoms, a few 30-minute dramas or two and more series that step outside the general formula, if only a little bit. If Necessary Roughness is a flop or Suits doesn’t live up to the slick potential the ads suggest it has, USA Network could be in some trouble. I’m not saying that they will be shaking in their boots and having emergency meetings about where to go now, especially because they have so many established, fairly young hits and a few “on-brand” series coming as well, but those events will surely make them strongly reconsider what to do moving forward.

I think USA Network is smart for trying to do something new this year, I really do. Adding another layer of difference to the formula is smart, branding-wise and programming-wise But they could very well learn that once you provide a certain kind of formula to an audience over an extended period of time, the audience doesn’t particularly want to move away from that formula. In that case, USA’s biggest strength becomes its biggest limitation and they’ll have to think about more quirky crime-solvers than they probably want to.

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