Profiling The Man Who Changed USA Network Forever
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 as strongly branded niche nets proliferate in the ever-expanding cable universe.
As a result, Chao finds himself with a dilemma–he has to develop signature shows and a brand image, but can’t alienate the traditional USA audience.
The way Chao, programming and marketing president at USA Networks, sees it, a “broad-based” network has an array “of voices and choices.” Pointing to how The WB’s programming outgrew its corny frog frontman, he refuses to spell out a specific USA image, preferring to let his shows do the defining. “I don’t want to lead the jury,” he says.
MTV programming chief and former Chao protege Brian Graden says any growth requires “creative risk,” adding that Chao’s sensibility is a perfect fit for USA. “It won’t be highbrow art,” Graden predicts, “but it’ll be compelling.”
Meanwhile, Chao also oversees Sci-Fi Channel, where he must expand the perceived definition of science fiction. While Chao’s first USA series, Happy Hour, flopped, Sci-Fi’s ratings and advertising dollars have been climbing. “Sci-Fi seems to be on track,” adds Nass, “I’d be more confident about Sci-Fi growing, because of its niche, than USA.”
Chao, who took an unusual path to this post, is confident in discussing either network; just don’t ask him to reflect on how his past affects his present. In a phone interview, Chao, 43, is forthright and opinionated with a certain pushy charm. Introspection, however, is something he avoids.
Chao’s family was wealthy and influential in prerevolutionary China, but he won’t talk about his heritage. He spent his childhood in Detroit, reading Stuart Little and watching Andy of Mayberry, which he praises for its “wonderful morality.” (This from the guy who championed Studs?)
Chao, who is married with two young sons, graduated in 1977 from Harvard with a degree in classics and in 1981 earned an MBA there. (This from the guy who created Cops?)
But between Cambridge stints, he spent two years as a reporter for the National Enquirer. (Remember Studs and Cops?) But while Chao acknowledges the Enquirer’s “populist sensibility,” he strives–against all logic–to make connections.
“I don’t think I wrote any essays about ‘Here’s what I learned here,”‘ he says.
In 1983, Chao went to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. where, as acquisitions VP, he shrewdly analyzed potential purchases of Twentieth Century Fox and Metromedia. But he wanted to be in production, so in 1987 he moved to Fox Television Stations, even though It was the “bottom of the food chain.”
At the station group, Chao tested bold new concepts and scored some stunning successes, particularly Cops and America’s Most Wanted. He also showed an eye for young talent, hiring Graden, among others. “Stephen was one of the few people to have a strong sense of his own opinion,” says Graden. “Everybody else hedged their bets.”
Graden says Chao pushed him to begin creating his own shows. For example, Chao gave Graden plenty of leeway–along with dead-on critiques–in the creation of Studs and then championed the show to Murdoch and Fox chairman Barry Diller.
Chao’s “tabloid TV”–subjects and presentation often considered gratuitously lewd, sensationalist and exploitative–revolutionized television. The shows also offered an immediacy often missing in series television, a sensibility traceable to Chao’s love of live performance, from theater to dance to wrestling. The revolution was also about economics–the shows were incredibly cheap–and soon reality-based imitators were everywhere.
While Chao’s failures were more ambitious artistically–Dr. Science, a hip, funny variation on Mr. Wizard; and Tribes, a high school-based soap opera–Graden points out that Chao was often simply ahead of his time. “The post-mortem on Tribes was that you should never do a teen soap,” Graden says. “Now they’re everywhere.”
Chao was also developing a reputation for being raunchy, arrogant and antagonistic, a persona enhanced by numerous stories of Chao’s: walking out of a staff meeting when Diller criticized him for not wearing a tie; falling asleep (or pretending to) during pitch meetings; crossing out “employee” and writing “indentured servant” on his contract; calling Diller a “f__ing liar” during an argument; tossing Murdoch’s wife Anna’s purebred puppy into a swimming pool.
Despite his personality, Chao rose quickly at Fox. Because of his personality, he fell even faster. In 1992, shortly after being promoted to president of Fox Television Stations and Fox News Service, Chao made a fatal mistake–he misread his audience. Speaking on a panel at a Fox retreat about freedom of expression and how network standards didn’t keep pace with modern-day experience, Chao hired a man to strip on stage while he spoke. He also urged Anna Murdoch–seated with Rupert, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and then-chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Cheney–not to avert her gaze. He was fired almost immediately afterwards.
Chao isn’t embarrassed by the incident and claims to have given it little thought. “I don’t think backwards. I think about the next move I’ll make.”
His next move after Fox was a beaut–he worked at a McDonald’s for six weeks.
This wasn’t self-imposed penance, however. “I love McDonald’s,” he says. “I used to eat it every day.” The gig seemed “different and interesting, and guaranteed to annoy my wife,” he says, with a laugh.
Soon after, he returned to television, forming Stephen Chao Inc., which produced television shows and worked with other groups to create overseas channels. Chao, who turned down network job offers, says he was quite content. But the production arm achieved little, producing forgettable specials like one about car accidents for ABC and a Candid Camera-style series called The Grant that went nowhere.
In April 1998, Chao was lured back to corporate life by Diller, who had taken control of USA Networks. The two executives, not known for their timidity, began cleaning house and fired a number of programming and business executives.
But Chao knows that USA’s strong ratings prevent him making similar sweeping changes to the network’s programming. “That would be too much arrogance,” he says. He knows action-oriented, sexy programming has worked for USA and says, “You can’t just put on Andy Warhol’s Sleep.”
But Diller is ponying up money to invest in programming, and Chao is ready to make his mark. Happy Hour was a European-style variety show that relied heavily on babes in bikinis; while Chao positioned it as counter-programming to the broadcasters’ Saturday series, Happy earned scathing reviews in April and was canceled in September with a 1.0 rating. While Chris Geraci, senior VP of national television buying for BBDO, praised it for being “unlike anything else on,” Nass says it won’t be missed.
“It could have come out stronger’ Chao admits. “It was a learning experience.”
GvsE, a supernatural cop show, about back-from-the-dead cops who battle evil, is faring better–its funky, X-Files-meets-Quentin Tarantino attitude earned good reviews and a modest 1.7 rating. Despite its unique flavor, it’s still a cop show with thrills and violence–and that fits right in on USA. “It’s a fundamentally sound show, but it needs a lot of promotion,” Nass says.
But so far, Chao’s most innovative decision has been a business one. He struck a deal allowing USA to run Law & Order: Special Victims Unit a mere 13 days after episodes air in prime time on NBC. (Lifetime and ABC have a similar deal with Once and Again.)
“The economic realities of programming are changing,” he explains and says more deals are being discussed, with numerous variables including joint ventures.
Nass calls this a shrewd move, pointing out that, to the 90 percent of America who missed the NBC airing, this is a first-run program. And Geraci points out that mainstream programs like this allow Chao the freedom to take risks with original series.
And with Chao expanding to originals for Tuesday night in 2000, there’ll be more GvsE-type shows–recognizable to USA fans, but with a twist, like Just Act Normal, the working title for a new Shaun Cassidy drama about an FBI agent who pulls his family into his work, or a sitcom called Brown Parcels of Land about a city cop turned small-town sheriff, shot with a single camera.
Chao also plans fewer “women in jeopardy” made-for-TV movies, saying USA had gotten stale with them. Instead, he has greenlighted projects like Hallmark Entertainment’s Attila the Hun mini-series.
More ambitious is a documentary series, which Chao acknowledges is “tricky to fit into USA,” and a soap opera called The Avenue to run at 5 or 6 p.m. “Who you are shouldn’t be defined only by prime time,” he says, emphasizing that the show will resemble high-quality foreign soaps like England’s East Enders, not All My Children. At Sci-Fi, Chao’s biggest project is Taken, a blockbuster 20-hour, $40 million miniseries being executive produced by none other than Steven Spielberg. “It’s very important to us,” Chao readily admits, not only as an expected rating- and revenue-generator, but as a crucial image-builder and promotional platform for the network.
But questions still remain about Chao’s penchant for outrageous behavior. He responds saying, “I y’am what I y’am,” adding flippantly, “I’m far wiser and better looking than I used to be.”
Women reporters at last January’s Television Critics Association tour were furious at how Chao trotted out scantily-clad women for the WWF and Happy Hour presentations (although the degrading treatment is certainly consistent with the programs themselves). And rumors continue about Chao’s temper flaring at USA.
But Bonnie Hammer, senior programming VP at Sci-Fi, claims Chao never gets angry at a bad idea, only at people “who don’t say anything for fear of sounding silly.” Hammer says Chao teases and tests his staff, but respects anyone who challenges him. “It’s tough, but it’s very refreshing.”
And David Eick, senior VP of series development for USA, says that while Chao gets “rowdy,” there has been no “acting out.” In fact, Eick praises Chao for treating assistants well and for being “more accessible than most people in his position.”
Ultimately, of course, the future for USA and Sci-Fi depends less on employees’ liking Chao than on audiences’ liking his programs. And, Geraci says, Chao is the right guy for the task. “He might take the networks down some roads they had not intended to go down, but they need to take some chances.”