May 27, 2010

Talking TV With Jeff Wachtel

Business News

May 27, 2010

Talking TV With USA's Jeff Wachtel

Lacey Rose

May 27, 2010

Once a wasteland for crime show repeats, Jeff Wachtel's USA Network is coming off its best year on record.

Thanks to top performers like Burn Notice, White Collar and Royal Pains, 2009 was USA's fourth year as the No. 1 cable network. Still better, the first quarter of this year was the network's 15th consecutive quarter on top, an impressive feat as the cable landscape grows increasingly crowded. And come July, Wachtel, who serves as head of original programming under chief Bonnie Hammer, will add another potential hit to the lineup, CIA drama Covert Affairs.

The programming chief, whose resume also features stints in theater, broadcast and TV movie production, spoke to Forbes about upbeat entertainment, copycat shows and what's next for the No. 1 network.

Forbes: You've been at General Electric -owned USA for nearly a decade--what has been the biggest change to both the cable industry since you arrived?

Wachtel: I think the biggest change is the metric that we espoused 10 years ago has now come to be accepted as the standard: In order to be successful, you do not have to be all things to all people. Ten years ago, the standard view of television overall, the broadcast model, was that in order to succeed you had to be broad and bring as any people in as possible. We didn't create what happened next but we were a part of it. It was really HBO and FX that started the notion that you can have a major success by appealing to a rather narrow but phenomenally dedicated audience. The USA twist on that was you can actually be a general entertainment success; you don't know have be edgy and dark and controversial and have a small audience. You can actually be a general entertainment destination but create quality shows that have a fanatical core and tonally is not that different from traditional successes in more traditional broadcast media.

And now you have a broadcast and cable landscape littered with shows that look a lot like USA shows. Flattering or worrisome?

You noticed that? [Laughs] I think it's both. We had a really interesting session with [NBC Universal chief executive] Jeff Zucker a couple of months ago. He went around the table and asked us, "What we are most proud of and what are you most worried about?" And the answer in our case was the same thing. What we're proudest of is our success and our long tenure as the No. 1 cable network. And what I'm most concerned about is the tendency that that gives you when everybody is saying, "Oh, look how good you are," and, "I want to do stuff like you," to relax and sit on your lead. Or to say, "Wow, maybe we really do have some sort of formula here." Because really, there is no formula. Really, it's a continually evolving process, and when you stop questioning what you're doing and bending your own roles, then you're screwed. We didn't get here by chasing our tail and in order to stay No. 1 we better keep reimagining yourself.

At what point does having a distinctive brand become a trap?

I think in some ways it can be. But a good brand is an environment--a place where success can build on success--so I think it's a filter rather than a trap. It's a filter for people to approach you and to see the unifying vision of what you can do.

There was talk of USA considering making a bid for off-net syndication of Big Bang Theory, which would signify a broadening of the brand. Will we start to see comedies like this and that sort of broadening on your schedule in the future?

It certainly is part of pushing the envelope. Right now, I think we have more successful scripted series on the air than any other network, broadcast or cable. But what that means is while you're still looking for renewal of your existing shows and bringing in new things into that aspirational, smart, escapist one-hours, you've got to be looking at other stuff, too. You've got to be looking at comedies, reality and event programs--things that might have a more limited run like Starter Wife. So yes, that is how a mature network has to transform: to not only do what they do best, but to start to reach out and play with other genres as well.

What role will that "blue skies" programming mentality play in these other genres?

I think you try to maintain the key element of your creative vision but also be flexible enough to understand that different genres are going to require somewhat different ways of looking at things. But at the same time, to really stay true to what has worked for us, which is always looking for original voices and trusting and empowering original voices and then giving them a clear and consistent target to shoot for and being on the lighter and more upbeat side of the scale. And then, of course, always looking for projects that aren't the fifth in the market but the first in the market--or at least the first in the current market.

Quite a high bar ...

Well, we don't get to take many shots. I don't get to make 27 pilots and put 13 shows on the air like the big broadcast guys. It's a little bit of no wine before its time and there's a handcrafted rather than a scattershot element to it. But it's early in the mix. We're not in that business yet, but that seems to be the logical place to build on our success.

You got your start producing David Mamet plays in New York. How does your past work in theater inform your work in TV today?

Early in my career, I thought I was going to be a theater director. What a theater director needs to do is to create a vision, find the material to base it on and then convince people to do their best work to service that vision. The worst thing to do to an actor is to give them a line reading--actors need to find their own truth of their storytelling internally with the guidance of the director. What I do now is kind of similar. Instead of actors I'm working with show-runners and we have a broad well-defined vision for the specific shows and for the overall story for our network. The idea of not imposing yourself on it but getting the best version of somebody else's vision is what I always trained for. Thirty years ago, I thought I was going to be the artistic director of a regional theater--that was my dream. And now I'm kind of the artistic director of USA Network.

Looking around the TV landscape, what is the show that isn't on your network but you wish was?

It's more like bits and pieces of shows these days. There have been times where I went, "Oh, I wish we had that one" when I read the script. Like a few years ago when I read [ Walt Disney -owned ABC's] Eli Stone, I said, "Wow, I just love that." I loved the idea that it had an effortless franchise and that really cool "is he a prophet or does he have a brain tumor?" It was like the first version of Cupid--is he just sort of a screwed-up guy or is he a Greek god? Last season, the first five minutes of The Good Wife was good as it gets. That's a show that is very smart and is very well cast and executed and very specific to the needs of the CBS brand. CBS' brand is a little more story- and franchise-driven than ours. But our version of The Good Wife would have been very interesting as well.

Storytellers welcome.