Jeff Wachtel

This interview originally appeared in the MIPTV 2013 issue of World Screen.
USA Network was one of the very first cable channels to venture into original productions. The strategy of using cost-effective production models, developing shows that offer an optimistic take on life and marketing them under the now famous “Characters welcome” tagline, has paid off. As Jeff Wachtel, one of the network’s co-presidents, explains, USA has been the number one network in all of basic cable for seven consecutive years.
WS: How did “Characters welcome” come about?
WACHTEL: When Bonnie [Hammer, today the chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group] came on board, she felt very strongly about networks having a brand. Chris McCumber [the other co-president of USA Network] and I joined the company at about the same time. We had been making shows and marketing them individually and Bonnie said, We really need an umbrella for this place to give it a handle for our affiliates, for our advertising clients and also for the creative community. We were lucky that, unlike some other people, who need to make up a brand out of thin air, we had already started finding some success with character-centric, lighter drama, which we had done because the world had put out endlessly grim pieces. We thought, we don’t have more money, but we have a unique vision. So how can we tailor that unique vision and bring in a unique audience? The “Characters” brand evolved from that. Now, interestingly, it’s been feeding the programming strategy and the programming mix. So we are lucky that we have a brand that is not like most—an imprint or a label—it is actually something that informs both the way we make shows and the way we market them.
WS: How does that brand filter guide you in deciding which shows fit the network?
WACHTEL: Like anything, it’s a dance. In the early [years], when we really had the field more or less to ourselves, [we looked for] more upbeat, aspirational, blue-sky types of dramas. It was kind of easy. We thought, OK, we know what to do and people know what to bring us. It was really about making the best possible version of whatever was working in the brand. Now that we’ve been market leaders for seven years—we’ve been number one—we need to push [the brand] out and the dance changes a little bit. We are very, very aware of our contract with the audience: bringing them the best programming that is more on the lighter side—it might even have some escapist elements in one sense, but at least it has a more upbeat view of the world and the world’s possibilities. That’s something that we are still very serious about, even as we move our brand toward what might be more edgy content.
WS: Are you moving toward edgier content in part because there are many other players in the cable world that are producing character-driven shows?
WACHTEL: I think it’s just come about because our programming has worked really well and we don’t want to be only one note. Our challenge right now is pushing ourselves out of any sense of complacency, and we’ve already done it and succeeded. We need to remind ourselves to take risks and push out and to still have that start-up mentality that made us successful.
WS: In 2008 Bonnie told me how USA had created a production model that allowed the shows to have as much quality as possible on the screen but cost less than broadcast shows. Is that still the area you want to be in?
WACHTEL: Very much. Our shows probably cost 30 percent to 35 percent less than similar shows on broadcast, and maybe 50 percent less than a show on pay cable. It’s not easy to sustain, especially given our success, but it’s also really important in the cable world that you keep the economics of each show manageable so that you can allow your showrunners the creative freedom that you promised them, and that you can give them a certain amount of flexibility. Part of it is, the more shows you make, the cheaper it gets per unit. If you go to Kinko’s and make 1,000 copies, it costs less [per copy] than making one copy. The same thing is true with series. We are more careful about our production model and we don’t do 22 or 24 episodes a year. That is one of the reasons that allow us to keep the quality high—we don’t do quite as many episodes in a year. It allows the original showrunner to stay on board as that special and unique voice. One of the things we take most pride in is that with very, very few exceptions, the person who came in on the original pitch of the idea is the person who writes the last episode. That was true on Monk and is true on Burn Notice and Psych, and our producers on Covert Affairs are going into their fourth season and they are the same.
WS: Yes, I’ve read there is tremendous loyalty among your showrunners. What creative environment do you provide them with?
WACHTEL: We are a collective of producers here and I will say immodestly that this is the best creative team in the business. It very much views the work like a producer. That enables us to bring people into the mix who may not have as much showrunning experience, but who have a really strong and distinct vision and we can be their backup as a production entity. So it’s a win-win. It allows newer voices to learn the trade and become showrunners and it invests our creative executives more fully.
WS: NCIS has been a huge success for you. Will you continue to acquire network shows to help fill out USA’s schedule?
WACHTEL: Very much so. The biggest thing in 2013 for us, in addition to all the original programming, is that Modern Family is coming on line in the fall. And we are treating that like we would treat the launch of an original. It’s that important to us and I think it’s going to be that important and that much fun to our audience, to have that show available with that frequency. It’s one of the very few shows that the networks have launched in the last few years that still has that incredible mass appeal and really plays to our audience.
WS: What are some of the originals coming up this year?
WACHTEL: We’re doing a show called Graceland from the creator of White Collar, Jeff Eastin. While it has a gorgeous Southern California setting, it goes to a deeper and darker theme than we have previously done. Graceland is based on a true story. The DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] busted a drug lord and one of his principal assets was this beautiful house in Redondo Beach. The DEA took it over and instead of putting it on the market, they said this would be a great safe house for our agents. DEA, the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department], U.S. Customs all use it as their cover house and create this very interesting community of undercover agents, who, when they leave the house, are engaged in some of the darkest and most complicated crime solving, but when they come home they have this sanctuary. Maybe the title Graceland has connotations to a certain rock and roll figure in the ’60s, but for us it’s about sanctuary. It’s a beautiful show and Jeff is about as fun, smart and witty a writer as there is.
And then we are doing new stuff. We have a couple of comedy pilots we are looking at right now, one of them stars Annie Potts, from Designing Women, as the mother of two young doctors. It’s a fun piece that we think might be a great companion to Modern Family. The other one is a little edgier. Denis Leary and Bob Fisher are producing it. Bob wrote Wedding Crashers.

We love that we are playing in the comedy world now and the other big thing is reality. It’s a genre that we feel we really need to join the party and we have a couple of shows we are launching in the spring. One is called The Moment and the other is The Choir. They are both upbeat and somewhat aspirational, but we also think they are very entertaining life journeys.