Known for respectable-performing yet cookie-cutter procedural dramas like "Monk," "Covert Affairs," "Psych" and "Royal Pains," the challenge for USA Network has always been getting anyone to take notice. The average viewer has traditionally skewed older than the young demo advertisers covet. And the network’s potpourri of product just hasn’t been able to come close to the critical acclaim or buzz enjoyed by competitors on AMC or FX, let alone HBO or Showtime.
Until now. The success of its sexy psychological thriller "Mr. Robot" is providing USA a whole new way to define its programming. The network, which has showcased the slogan "Characters Welcome" since 2005, is now rebranding itself as "We the Bold."
The new positioning, unveiled last week, was created to "reflect the kind of stories we want to tell — rich, captivating stories about unlikely heroes who defy the status quo, push boundaries and are willing to risk everything for what they believe in," said Chris McCumber, president of Entertainment Networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment in a prepared statement.
The "unlikely hero" showcased in the new campaign is Rami Malek as cyber-security engineer Eliot Alderson. The first on-air spot introducing the tagline shows the "Mr. Robot" star on a train in deep thought. "There are no guarantees anymore," the hooded anti-hero reveals in the voiceover, as dramatic images of a city under siege fill the screen. "We have more power than they think," he continues. "The power to take action. To choose to do something. Anything but blindly following the herd and accepting that this just the way things are. Together we can change the world. Use our future. And there is nothing they can do to stop us." The 60-second spot closes with the "We the Bold" message and the USA logo.
Future ads will include the stories of other lead characters, including Sarah Wayne Callies as "Katie Bowman" on "Colony;" WWE Superstar Roman Reigns and "Teresa Mendoza" (Alice Braga) from upcoming drama "Queen of the South."
But it’s "Mr. Robot" that most embodies the new line. "We The Bold" is an attempt to convey a new era of storytelling, one that will appeal to millennials with programming that USA describes as displaying "the virtues of authenticity, resiliency, bravery and innovation."
Considering the breakout success of the show, a recent Peabody Award nominee, rebranding to strike when the iron is hot (or at least heating up) is no surprise. But does a tagline really matter anymore?
It certainly did, of course, when corporate cousin NBC struck gold with its "Must See TV" branding. But that started in the summer of 1993 when there were just four broadcast networks, far fewer cable outlets, and VCRs were the catch-up devices of choice. In that more controlled atmosphere, NBC’s entire Thursday night "Must See TV" line-up ("Seinfeld," "Friends" and "ER," included) finished among the Top 6 programs by the 1995-96 season. But that was then. Today there are more networks, more shows and more ways to consume content than ever before.
"In the world of DVR, On Demand, Hulu, Netflix and other streaming, the emphasis is truly on the programming, not the network platform," said Robert Russo, President and CEO of RNR Media Consulting. "In today’s environment people just do not watch networks. People watch programs, so you can tell me you are a bold as you want but this strategy just feels very 20 years ago to me."
Yet Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group’s SVP, director of content strategy, argues that is the very reason a slogan such as "We The Bold" is needed. "In today’s fragmented marketplace, attaching a tagline to a brand can be an attribute. But you must have the programming to back up the claim," he said. "USA has exactly that with ‘Mr. Robot,’ but the success of the branding strategy is dependent on future programming to enforce the message."
Since the moral of any story is always the quality of the content, USA will certainly take great lengths to use "Mr. Robot" to segue into more buzzed-about content. But given the more complicated environment of today, not even an aggressive rebranding like "We The Bold" will probably matter all that much. In the end, the programming is what will be remembered. And for now at least, USA has its very first big hit.