Without trim, the announcement could have left indifferent. On May 13, USA Network announced the cancellation of two original series: The Purge (2 seasons) and Treadstone (1 season), in the wake of that of Dare Me (1 season). Nothing overwhelming, insofar as these series will have had little impact. The most notable is the trim: a (new) change in editorial direction for USA Network, which speaks volumes about the ongoing changes in American television.
The recent history of USA Network has not been without twists and turns. In July 2015, this basic cable channel (that is to say broadcasting advertising) launched an intense, tortured, ultra sophisticated techno-thriller, totally breaking with more than a decade of “blue skies TV”:
Mr. Robot, which will remain as one of the creative peaks of the decade 2010. A year later, the chain announced a change of editorial course (“rebranding”), symbolized by a promising slogan (“We the Bold”, “We, intrepid »), And a proactive discourse focused on daring, innovation, and anchoring in contemporary society. So many beautiful promises that will never really come true. The first two
to have joined Mr. Robot, in 2016, already left doubt: with
Colony and Queen
of the South, nothing innovative came to fill our screens. Despite an actually darker tone, we found the same tics of achievement (slowdown, overcutting, scales of plan to the economy), the same lack of psychological depth, the same mania for going in circles. The first will be canceled in 2018 (3 seasons), and the second will see the production of its fifth season interrupted by the containment measures related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Queen of the South (2016-)
Today, USA Network has only three original series in production:
Queen of the South, The Sinner and Briarpatch. The last two are seasonal anthologies whose fate is pending. The third season of
The Sinner (arguably the chain’s most compelling proposition since
Mr. Robot) was broadcast between February and March 2020. As for
Briarpatch (an unconvincing thriller produced by Sam Esmail, the dad of
Mr. Robot, with Rosario Dawson in the spotlight), the broadcast of its inaugural season ended a month later, in April 2020. Rest of reality TV, wrestling, and a wide range of series of
networks distributed in syndication (some sitcoms dont Modern Family, and many
procedurals among which Law & Order: Special
Victims Unit, NCIS and one of his spin-offs, NCIS: Los
Angeles, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Chicago P.D.). Also featured in USA Network season 2
Dirty John (a stereotypical criminal series taken from Bravo, another basic cable channel), an adaptation of the stunt acrobatics on motorcycle Evel Knievel (played by Milo Ventimiglia), and more or less advanced projects such as revival of
Bridges. Hello Sadness…
Towards a recalibration of the American cable
The most notable is probably in the official press release that accompanied the cancellation of
The Purge and Treadstone. The management of USA Network has in fact announced that it wants to refocus on live, non-fiction (“unscripted”) broadcasts, by limiting its series to projects of a few episodes called to create the event (“event series”, or “ limited event television series ”(long version). Or a strategy which strongly recalls that already adopted by the
network Fox to revive successful series like
24 (Live Another Day, 12 episodes aired in spring 2014) and
The X-Files (seasons 10 and 11 of 6 and 10 episodes, broadcast in 2016 and 2018). As illustrated by the new USA Network slogan (“All in. All day.”), In the era of catch-up television and SVOD platforms, the priority of linear channels is more than ever at events, the objective being to bring the spectators in front of their television set.
Nellie Andreeva rightly points out, for Deadline, that this turnaround reflects the growing difficulty of basic cable channels (a large part of whose revenues are based on advertising revenues) to continue to exist in the increasingly competitive world of original series production. Faced with the emergence of new competition (SVOD platforms that multiply), exponential inflation of production costs, the explosion in the number of series launched each year (what John Landgraf, president of FX , nicknamed “Peak TV”), as well as the evolution of viewing practices (offset, catch-up, on demand, etc.), these “middle channels” would inevitably end up footing the bill. We are starting to see the first concrete effects, since groups like Turner (owner of TBS, TNT, CNN, TCM, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, TruTV), A&E Networks (A&E, History, Lifetime) and ViacomCBS (MTV, Comedy Central, TV Land, Paramount Network) have already started to reduce the sail of their basic cable channels in terms of fiction series.
The Sinner (2017-)
And the latter are not the only ones to know such a development. Some cable channels
premium (without advertising cuts) also find it difficult to keep up and take responsibility for extremely expensive serial productions, with no guarantee of return on investment. In March 2017, Cinemax announced that it would no longer
period drama de Steven Soderbergh, The Knick, and, more generally, prestige series. After four years of crazy artistic ambitions (materialized by
The Knick, but also by the most overlooked Outcast and Quarry), now that HBO’s little sister returned to the “high-octane action dramas” that had made its success with a subscriber base in search of thrills. Result of the races: novelties fit inside named
Warrior and Jett (both launched in 2019), of which there won’t be much left after their release is complete.
On the side of Starz, the departure of Chris Albrecht, at the beginning of last year, also sounds like a renunciation of certain artistic ambitions. With original series like
Party Down, Boss and
The Girlfriend Experience, former program director and president of HBO had brought his flair and his knowledge of the American television market to a competitor
premium whose name had started to shine, after having remained unknown for a long time outside the circles of specialists. The announcements made in January 2020 by Albrecht’s replacement, Jeffrey Hirsch, however do not predict anything very crisp:
of Power (prequels, sequels), a series adaptation of the franchise John Wick (The Continental), a reboot
of Weeds… For (really) original creations, you will have to iron.
If we add that Showtime struggles to conclude beautifully series that it sometimes tends to leave dragging on (Weeds, Dexter, Nurse Jackie,
The Affair, Homeland), that the chain is turning more and more towards miniseries with prestigious distribution serving as misery-hide (Escape
at Dannemora, Patrick Melrose, The Loudest Voice), and that she now lets herself put on the air creations of mediocrity unworthy of her standing (The L Word: Generation Q, Work in Progress, Penny
Dreadful: City of Angels), the cable chains premium hardly seem to be celebrating more than their indirect competitors of the basic cable. With FX who begins to see some of his original series sucked in by Hulu (Devs,
Mrs. America, A Teacher, The Old Man, all under the label “FX on Hulu”), and a coronavirus pandemic that is pushing
to turn to dry orders, without going through the pilot box (“straight-to-series”), eyes are turning more and more to SVOD platforms, to the detriment of historic broadcasters. The television of tomorrow is on, with no guarantee of artistic elevation of the series that are distributed there like hotcakes – the quantity seeming to impose itself as the keyword of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and other HBO Max embarking on the battle despite the current interruption of filming. The future will tell us if we gain in exchange. We know what we lose, we don’t know what we gain.
Photos USA Network