USA network shakes up schedule under new strategy

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Cable television's top-rated network, USA, is shaking things up a bit.

Starting this week, USA will no longer air any of its original dramas on Friday nights but will start putting new shows at 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday and Wednesday, nights that had previously been reserved for reruns of network shows like "NCIS."

The season premiere of "White Collar" on Tuesday starts the new schedule. "Psych" will start on Wednesdays on Jan. 27.

USA will be trading away a signature Friday night where shows like "Monk" thrived for several years, in favor of two nights when more people generally are watching television.

"We decided it was time to take some risks," said Bonnie Hammer, the network's chief executive. "Being complacent was never going to teach us anything."

Hammer said she has a 16-year-old son who has asked her mom why "White Collar" was on Friday nights, saying his friends would otherwise watch the show.

Instead, they're out. Or, like many adults, they're catching up on what was recorded that week on DVR.

Those are some reasons why the bigger broadcast networks have de-emphasized Fridays over the past few years. USA has used that to its advantage by offering some of its most popular programs that night as an alternative.

The struggles of corporate sister NBC with the just-canceled "Jay Leno Show" also convinced USA that more people interested in drama series might be available at 10 p.m. on weeknights, Hammer said. Both companies are owned by NBC Universal.

USA also programs original shows on Sundays, where "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "In Plain Sight" are most likely to land. The popular WWE professional wrestling airs on Mondays, and the original show "Burn Notice" will stay on Thursdays, with new episodes beginning this week.

The typical strategy for cable networks is to build on successes, not fiddle with them. Walking away from Friday nights could be a risky move for USA, said Marc Berman, a television analyst for Media Week Online.

"You don't want to break up something that works," Berman said. "You want to accentuate what's working."

"White Collar" was also the first new show that USA has begun in the middle of the broadcast TV season. Usually cable networks try for months when broadcasters aren't airing their own originals in order to get more attention.

USA, in other words, is starting to act like a broadcast network.

"We're always nervous that we could lose the crown," Hammer said. "We're always nervous that our operating profit could slide. I think it's the nervousness and the worry that it won't last forever that keeps us working so hard."


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