IDEALLY, THE PROGRAMMING CHIEF FOR a broad-based cable network called USA would be a quintessential American: a second-generation American who looks ahead rather than reflecting on the past; someone who, for all his higher education and Hollywood living, genuinely loves fast food and professional wrestling. Someone like Stephen Chao.
The former Fox wunderkind’s track record of inexpensive, lowbrow–and hugely popular–series is, after all, consistent with USA’s modus operandi. “Chao is a smart guy,” confirms Howard Nass, executive director of broadcast for TN Media, one of the country’s largest media-buying companies, who describes USA’s programming head as both aggressive “and a little bit different.”
“The production community will want to come to him,” Nass predicts.
It all sounds like a match made in heaven. And while it might well turn out that way, the Chao-USA union may not be quite so blissful.
For starters, Chao’s storyline is filled not just with high ratings, but with bad reviews and a temperament that sometimes threatens to overshadow his work.
What’s more, cable is more complicated than ever. Even though USA has been a consistently top-rated network, Nass points out, it relies heavily on the increasingly crude World Wrestling Federation to maintain its high ratings, and has long struggled for an identity. As a result, he says, the network is vulnerable to ratings erosion …