Asked to name a popular cable network, most viewers would tick off CNN, ESPN or Nickelodeon. Their very specific types of programming - news, sports and children's shows, respectively - give each a clear public identity.
Indeed, conventional wisdom says a cable network succeeds when viewers and advertisers can readily define its genre and know that it interests them.Yet the most popular cable network in prime time for the last six years has been the USA Network, whose programming defies definition, running the gamut from lowbrow crime movies to reruns of "Murder, She Wrote" and "Wings," from upper-crust golf and tennis to the vaudeville of pro wrestling. The variety makes USA's schedule more closely resemble old-fashioned broadcast television than cable.
Now USA is trying to capitalize on that resemblance, and change its muddled image, by trying to crack one of the last barriers separating broadcast television's entertainment programming from basic cable's: the original series.
"We think we virtually are the fifth network now, behind NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox," said Kay Koplovitz, chairman and chief executive officer of USA Networks, which includes the Sci-Fi Channel. "And the confluence of trends is in our favor. Now is the time for a big move."
Koplovitz, who was USA's president at its inception in 1977 as a sports network, has steered it through joint ownership by combinations of five different corporate titans over the years. Recently its present owners, MCA and Viacom, sued each other over a clause in their partnership agreement, with MCA demanding that Viacom sell its half of USA Networks to MCA.
Both companies would like to gain sole ownership of USA, in part because they see the same converging trends Koplovitz sees.
These include the growth in cable's availability - 70 percent of American homes have it now, and it is expected to be 80 percent within the next decade - and the growth of its audience share. In prime time this season, viewers who receive both cable and broadcast channels have spent about 30 percent of their time watching cable shows, a number that has shot upward in the last few years.
"If I'm going to get a slice of the pie, I might as well go after a slice of the bigger pie," Koplovitz said, making it clear that USA wants to attract viewers from the broadcast networks by developing shows more like those of broadcast television.
She has invested $140 million in original programming this year, a hefty amount for a cable network. She also hired Rod Perth from CBS 18 months ago to become president of USA Network Entertainment. While the network has its headquarters in New York, Perth remains in Los Angeles, where he is trying to persuade the better-caliber producers and writers to develop shows for USA.
For next season, USA has four new series in production. Two are based on popular movies: "The Big Easy," a detective drama being written and produced by Jacqueline Zambrano (who created the short-lived police series "Under Suspicion" for CBS), with a networklike budget of about $1 million per episode, and "La Femme Nikita," an action drama based on the 1991 French film about a woman transformed into a globe-trotting government assassin.
The two others are comedies. One stars Claude Brooks, a young black comedian who was a regular on the Fox sitcom "True Colors"; the other is a sitcom with the working title "Rudy," combining humans and life-size puppets, produced by David Steinberg, Quincy Jones and David Salzman.
USA's first stab at a series was "Silk Stalkings," which began as a co-production with CBS, and still thrives on USA. More than a cult favorite, this steamy Florida police drama about the seedy rich consistently ranks among the high-rated cable shows, even in its fifth season.
Thomas Wertheimer, who was on USA's board until last year, said that cable networks were "taken more seriously by all producers in Hollywood," because of cable's growing audiences and larger programming budgets.
"But many producers also find it appealing that USA operates kind of lean and mean, in terms of the layers of personnel you have to deal with," he said. "Being able to get quick answers, having people listen to you and respond: To creative people, those things are sometimes more important than money. USA affords greater freedom to people, historically. It's how Kay runs the network."
So far, the Koplovitz-Perth report card is mixed. Two original series that went on the network in January, "Weekly World News" and "Campus Cops," quickly failed. Perth's intense efforts to promote "Duckman," a satiric Saturday-night animated series that he loves, have not pushed its ratings beyond the cult-show level. USA's other original series are "Pacific Blue" and "Weird Science."
USA has many original movies to its credit (since 1988, it has been producing 24 a year, far more than any other cable network), but only a few have earned critical praise. One was "My Antonia," based on Willa Cather's novel. Koplovitz says USA will produce at least one movie from a classic novel each year; Carson McCullers' "Member of the Wedding" is due next season.
Even without counting movies, USA has more hours of original programming scheduled for next season than either WB or UPN, the fledgling broadcast networks.
Seen on independent stations, those networks reach more than 90 percent of the nation's homes but have limited schedules: WB two nights a week, UPN three. With USA available seven nights a week, its cumulative audience of 13.8 million households per week, on average, is larger than either of theirs. But its average prime-time rating is smaller (1.5 nationally for USA, to 2.5 for WB and 3.2 for UPN, with each rating point representing 959,000 homes).
USA Networks also owns the Sci-Fi Channel, one of the most successful new cable channels, with about 30 million subscribers, and is a partner in CNET: The Computer Network, a production company supplying computer-oriented programming to the Sci-Fi Channel. The Sci-Fi Channel is a major component of USA's overseas expansion too; USA International televises USA and Sci-Fi programming in Latin America, Europe and southern Africa.
At the National Cable Television Association's annual convention this week in Los Angeles, USA is introducing a new logo and a new studio set described as "a virtual TV landscape," to be seen between shows and to promote network identity. Both are meant to reinforce an image as a broad-based, high-quality network.
"With some of the ambitious original shows we're developing, we think over time if we can get a cluster of them, it leads to brand-name recognition," Perth said. "The best model is Fox. Fox had a certain focus, an attitude, a certain voice, yet they are a broad-based network, and now include pro sports."
Bill Marchetti, a cable industry analyst for Paul Kagan Associates, a television-industry consulting company, said cable networks had occasionally created cult-hit shows (like MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head") and specials or movies that drew broadcast-level audiences.
"But the last bastion between network and cable TV is to develop a really top series," he said.