RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Big TV networks are watching their overall ratings go down even as cable audiences are growing. And cable has been featuring an increasing number of dramas, comedies, and hit reality shows. The USA Network is leading the pack as the number one cable channel. The person who's made this happen is Bonnie Hammer. She runs USA as well as the Sci-Fi Channel and the studio that produces a lot of their original programming. NPR's Kim Masters has this profile.
KIM MASTERS: There are hundreds of channels to choose from on television these days. So which one is the USA Network? If you know, that's a victory for Bonnie Hammer. If you don't, USA has a pretty eclectic mix. From wrestlers on "WWE Raw"...
(Soundbite of TV show, "WWE Raw")
MASTERS: ...to mild-mannered obsessive-compulsive detective Monk.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Monk")
Mr. TONY SHALHOUB (Actor): (As Monk) That's a new rug, don't just stand on it. You have to keep moving.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Moving?
Mr. SHALHOUB: (As Monk) So it doesn't wear out in one place.
Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Oh, you mean like this?
Mr. SHALHOUB: (As Monk) Maybe wider circles.
Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Okay. I'm just going to stand over here.
MASTERS: Like other cable channels, USA still runs old movies and repeats, but USA also has come up with an extraordinary string of original hits: "Monk," "Psych," "In Plain Sight," "Burn Notice," and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent." And a new program based on last year's successful miniseries, "The Starter Wife," will premiere in October.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Starter Wife")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (Actor) It's over. You gave it your best shot.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) My best shot? I work 24/7 making sure that Kenny Kagan never has to remember or do anything that he doesn't want to do and I do it all with perfect hair.
MASTERS: These hit shows make USA the number one channel in cable. Bonnie Hammer is the one who got it there. She took over in 2004, having already produced results at the Sci-Fi Channel with shows like "Battlestar Galactica." One of her first moves at USA was giving the network a stronger brand identity.
Ms. BONNIE HAMMER (USA Network): We wanted a place that didn't feel as research had told us, yeah, USA's predictable, but it kind of feels like a nicely worn-in old shoe.
MASTERS: Hammer wanted USA to stand for something in the minds of viewers. That meant the new logo and the new tagline.
Unidentified Man #2: USA, characters welcome.
MASTERS: Characters welcome may be vague, but Hammer says it helps define original programming on the network.
Ms. HAMMER: Is there a central character? Is this character slightly flawed, but upbeat and wanted it to be blue skies, not frothy, necessarily like "Baywatch," but to have an upbeat aspirational tone.
MASTERS: Hammer says having this filter helps her executives come up with shows that are right for USA.
Ms. HAMMER: Once we had parameters, the projects that were coming were better because people weren't just accepting pitches from everyone about anything. They could judge good writing, but they had no idea whether it was going to fit.
Mr. ANTHONY CRUPI (Mediaweek): They've won pretty much every quarter in primetime. They've won every year. They're at the top of the cable ratings heap day in and day out.
MASTERS: Journalist Anthony Crupi is with the trade publication Mediaweek. He says the big challenge now is figuring out how to keep it up. Hammer knows how easy it would be to make a mistake. Her executive team may be high on the networks rating's success, and yet a little low on self-esteem. When Emmy nominations were announced recently, rival AMC picked up 16 nominations for the critical darling "Mad Men," an edgy period piece about ad men in the '60s. "Mad Men"'s low ratings would be unacceptable on USA, but 16 nominations for just one show; USA squeezed out four for all of its shows.
HAMMER: What USA - what I call the kids at USA really, really, really, really want is the numbers that we get, but want to be embraced like "Mad Men" was embraced.
MASTERS: And those urges can lead to risky behavior. Journalist Anthony Crupi.
Mr. CRUPI: There's always the danger in TV that anytime you have success, you tinker with the formula. So I wouldn't be surprised to see them throwing more money at more A-list personalities.
MASTERS: Hammer isn't necessarily opposed to chasing a name, but USA is known for controlling its budgets and for believing that TV shows make stars, not the other way around. So when she met with her staff on a July morning, the day after the Emmy nominations were announced...
Ms. HAMMER: Now we have to figure out why...
MASTERS: Hammer kept the focus on doing better among the relatively young demographic that advertisers pursue, not on getting buzz, but on improving the ratings.
Ms. HAMMER: We do extraordinarily well, but that's definitely kind of the target for the next couple of series. What will be our "Mad Men," but with ratings?
MASTERS: Jackie de Crinis, who's responsible for developing original series, has an idea.
Ms. JACKIE DE CRINIS (USA Network): Men will watch romance, you know, if there's frontal nudity. I think that's totally - let's put that on the list as something to look at.
Ms. HAMMER: No, serious, whether it's sexier, a little darker, which Jeff knows I'm the one to say uh-uh, not dark, but edgier, I'm not sure.
MASTERS: The meeting turns to "Royal Pains," a show in development about a doctor to the rich in the Hamptons.
Ms. HAMMER: Where's the edge, or where's the sex, or where's the...
Ms. DE CRINIS: Well, I think that will ultimately come from the stories we choose to tell because it's the rich and famous of the Hamptons. She could be a beautiful, sexy model in a compromised position that might have a medical story behind it.
MASTERS: That might not sound quite like "Mad Men," but Hammer makes it clear to her staff, USA isn't putting prestige ahead of ratings.
Ms. HAMMER: It would seem that because we have the level of success that we have, that we could take the risk and afford the critical acclaim piece and the one rating. We can't.
MASTERS: When USA has a flop, she says, the network won't get credit for taking a risk.
Ms. HAMMER: Frankly, I don't want to be here when we have our first failure because I'm enjoying the ride of success.
MASTERS: Which might mean that USA treads with some caution in a pair of cute but sensible shoes instead of those flashy, pricey, impractical Manolo Blahniks.
Kim Masters, NPR News.