In 2011, USA Network was the most watched network on cable in both total viewers and the all important 18-49 demographic. Their summer lineup, anchored by such hits as “Royal Pains” and “Burn Notice,” both averaged over five million viewers. Viewers also used “Burn” to launch a new show, “Suits,” to an average of four million in the summer. The network had a cohesive brand, all pulled together under the tagline “Characters Welcome” and with a “blue skies” sense of optimism and fun.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the picture looks very different. “Burn Notice” has long since ended its run, “Pains” and “Suits” are a shadow of what they once were (only getting 1.5 million and 2.3 million viewers respectively during their summer runs). The “Characters Welcome” brand and most of the shows that went along with it ended, and most of the new shows which the network used to replace them have failed. Neither “Graceland,” “Rush” and “Complications” made it past a third season before cancellation.
These signs point to a network in transition. The USA Network “brand” is in flux, with the network trying to push into more edgy programming. As the track record suggested, it’s not completely working. However, there’s one series which can point to the network’s success: “Mr. Robot.” The show does not have good ratings, but it’s more of a sign of USA’s new brand than anything else they’ve done before.
Before “Mr. Robot” even premiered, it was renewed for a second season after the pilot was released several weeks early. This is not something the USA Network of a few years ago would have done. It was a bold statement to put that announcement out there before most of the public had seen the show, and it was a sign of the network’s confidence in what they had. They looked at the show’s tone, its unique cinematography and direction (like the visual flourish that happens when Elliot (Rami Malek, “The Master”) was tripping on morphine) and its buildup of drama when making the renewal decision.
Yet, from a ratings perspective, “Mr. Robot” ’s were not good at all. The show averaged 1.4 million viewers and a 0.5 rating in the key 18-49 demographic. (Those numbers would double or sometimes triple when a week’s worth of DVR viewing is factored in). That’s about 30 percent below its lead-in, “Suits,” and on par with the series “Rush,” which was cancelled in 2014. Where “Mr. Robot” has proven successful for the network is in critical buzz and awards. According to the Hitfix Critics Poll, which measures critic’s top 10 lists, the show placed highly on many top 10’s. (It finished in the number four spot on our list.) It also won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Drama (with pending nominations at the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild Awards.) USA is ideally looking to leverage all this attention into Emmy nominations in the summer.
By renewing the show early and showing confidence in what they had, USA is showcasing a major shift in strategy. They’re focusing on buzz and awards in renewal decisions, instead of just looking at the ratings. Instead of the formal populist approach, it’s similar to how FX handles its critically acclaimed shows. “Fargo” and “The Americans” don’t exactly pull in crowds like “Sons of Anarchy” and “American Horror Story,” but the network respects the critical buzz and awards attention they bring so they keep them on the air. USA has never really taken this approach with its programming before. “Mr. Robot” is darker and more off-putting than any of the shows on USA’s air in 2011. It’s the most “brand-defining” series for them since the premiere of “Suits” in 2011, and will likely be a model for development in USA Network for years to come.