Chris McCumber, the New York-based co-president of the USA Network, recently returned from a two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. In his first meeting back, Ted Linhart, the senior vice president of research for USA, mentioned the explosive success of competitor network TLC’s new pageant-princess reality series, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
“What the hell happened in two weeks?” Mr. McCumber wondered aloud.
It’s been a turbulent summer on television—a period that Mr. McCumber describes as “a golden age” and his Los Angeles counterpart at USA, Jeff Wachtel, describes as “the early days of the apocalypse.” Honey Boo Boo, for instance, has become a late-summer sensation, outpacing not merely Toddlers and Tiaras, the slightly more staid reality series on which Ms. Boo Boo herself first appeared, but also network coverage of the political conventions. VH1, in its continual process of reinventing itself, landed upon a major hit with Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta, while the story of the summer may have been Hatfields & McCoys, the History Channel’s first foray into scripted programming, which drew 14.3 million viewers for its final installment. That’s a fantastic number even by broadcast standards. USA’s success, and the absence of a totally off-brand show in its lineup, have been the only constants.
“Any network, no matter how small they are, can pop a huge number with a completely original idea, so everyone seems to be competition,” said Mr. McCumber in a recent joint interview with Mr. Wachtel at the USA offices in Rockefeller Center. What went unsaid was that networks like TLC and History had radically revised their respective brands with single hits. Rare is the network with a coherent brand identity these days: AMC, for instance, followed its critically beloved Breaking Bad not with a similarly edgy drama but with the chintzy reality show Small Town Security. FX has room for both the revolutionary Louie and the regressive Anger Management.
Meanwhile, USA, the No. 1 cable network for going on seven years—and the network that has historically dominated the summer months—has not radically deviated from a strategy known as “Blue Skies.” Mr. McCumber described some of its elements to The Observer: “We still like to play in slick, blue sky, aspirational sort of environments.” It’s been a formula for success, one that now runs year-round: shows with well-defined, great-looking protagonists undertaking unusual lines of work in exotic locations, with a fundamental sunniness no matter the danger the characters find themselves in.
June Thomas of Slate summed up the network’s summer strategy best: “Just as we reach for lemonade rather than hot chocolate when the weather turns warm, light, bright shows appeal more than the dark, tense dramas of the main broadcast season. USA series like Burn Notice, set in Miami, and Royal Pains, in the Hamptons, are all sun, swimsuits, and seersucker.” This past summer also saw new seasons of White Collar, a show about a con man turned good, and Suits, about crusading lawyers. Both are set in a sleek, glassy vision of New York.
“If you describe one of our shows in just a logline, it may seem somewhat conventional,” said Mr. Wachtel, who explained that the various shows’ “better-than-expected execution” and gradations of voice help the network escape charges of reductiveness. (Not that it’s silenced all critics: the pop-culture blog Vulture ran a slideshow last summer called “How to Create a USA Show in Six Easy Steps,” including “Make Someone a Rookie With a Desirable Area of Expertise” and “Add a Sunshine-y Locale.”) It’s worked. Both presidents cited internal research and anecdotal evidence that USA’s “overlap”—the number of viewers tuning into multiple shows and not just a single favorite—is unusually high.