All Hail USA: How the Network Dominates the Cable Landscape

How is USA doing this? The stats are absolutely staggering.

Last August, Entertainment Weekly published a story looking at the top rated cable programs in the summer. Of the top ten rated returning shows this summer, USA had four (Burn Notice, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs, White Collar). They weren’t done. Of the top ten rated new shows that trotted out last summer, USA had numbers two and three (Suits, Necessary Roughness). The network deserves a ton of credit for producing programming that does well both in the ratings and in the Don Draper coveted 18-49 demographic.

While the numbers themselves aren’t an interesting debate, what is interesting is how USA is accomplishing this feat. None of their shows have any real stakes to them. Somehow, I’m not really worried about Fiona getting out of prison, the future of HankMed, or if Shawn Spencer will ever be found out as a fake psychic. Either those things are not going to happen, or the fallout from those events will be uneventful or innocuous. Part of what keeps us really invested in our favorite dramas (Homeland, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc.) is the huge stakes that are found in an episode or a season. Was Stannis Baratheon going to seize the Iron Throne? If you hadn’t read the books, you didn’t know. Suddenly, some beloved characters were in real danger. USA dramas never put their guys in that kind of place. Things may look hairy, but you always know that things are going to work out in the end. What makes these shows so compelling watchable?

One pretty simple theory emerges when you look at the threads connecting these shows. They are comfort food. They have friendly faces, pretty blue skies, and shows that allow to do something else while you watch them. You don’t have to pay attention. Frankly, I don’t think USA minds if you don’t pay attention. Just tune in every week and have it on in the background while you fold your laundry. The leading men/women of these series are all affable guys with various neuroses. They have filled their schedule with guys that are easy to root for (Michael Westen), and guys who are a-holes but in a nice way (Harvey Specter). These affable leading men/women all somehow seem to work in the coolest places ever. Whether it’s the beach or the big city, USA has all of our potential screensaver needs covered.

These shows are so friendly and upbeat that TV critics raised their eyebrow when USA announced its production of the mini-series Political Animals. This show will venture from the gorgeous shores of the Hamptons and Miami and into the unsavory heart of Washington DC. When you watch the trailer, this show looks like it’s going to possess something of a dark edge to it. I’m sure we’re not talking about the next Breaking Bad, but it’s mildly startling to watch USA go in this direction.

I really hope that Political Animals is successful for USA. Now that the network has garnered plenty of viewers, it’s time for the network to stretch itself a bit. If nothing else, it will please me to see another cable channel where promising dramas can thrive. With AMC taking fire for some of their recent new offerings, now could be the time for USA to assert themselves as a place for the best quality, and best rated, programming on television. I know the guys at USA could care less, but it’s a nice thought.