Bullets. Brawn. Babes. That’s been the recipe for ratings success at USA, the most watched network on basic cable. But lately, USA’s had to alter its winning formula — particularly since the network lost its flagship offering, the World Wrestling Foundation, to the Nashville Network (TNN). (The WWF’s ”Sunday Night Heat” and ”Raw” kick off on TNN Sept. 25.) So after pulling the plug on its four year old series ”La Femme Nikita,” USA did an abrupt U turn last week, announcing a plan to revive the sexy spy drama for another 8 episodes. ”Nikita” fans — who’d bombarded executives with sunglasses (the heroine’s signature accessory) — rejoiced, but the network still faces a dilemma that even its wily secret agent may not be able to solve: Can the Barry Diller owned outlet revitalize its original programming in time for fall?
Media analyst Marc Berman says the return of ”Nikita” is ”just one small step” in a bid to remain on top. ”They’re going to have to start from square one,” says Berman, who predicts a tough road ahead for USA. ”Nikita,” he points out, is a modest hit, averaging about 1.8 million viewers a week. (Compare that to the 8 to 10 million viewers who tuned in to watch the WWF shows.) Spurred on by fan support, USA plans to heavily promote the new episodes, which are now in preproduction and scheduled to air in January. ”I’m thinking of it almost as a huge miniseries event,” says Stefani Relles, USA’s director of development and creative affairs. ”Obviously, we hope to keep the momentum building and keep the possibility of even more shows open.”
Peta Wilson, who plays the show’s titular heroine, has signed on for the revival, and USA is in negotiations with the other principal players. Though the season finale aired Aug. 27, the enigmatic action series left key issues unresolved, including the state of the love/ hate relationship between Nikita and her spy master lover, Michael (Roy Dupuis). In response came an aggressive Internet based fan campaign, which mobilized viewers in 40 countries to post over 100,000 messages on a website pleading with USA and Warner Bros. to bring back their favorite program. ”It was obvious these people needed closure,” says Relles, who personally received more than 20 ”funky” sunglasses with pro-”Nikita” messages on the frames. ”If only the Nielsens reflected this fanatical following.”
Because ratings are the bottom line, media analyst Berman says that networks shouldn’t stake their fates on just one series. ”USA rode on the coattails of wrestling so much that it failed to create a real identity apart from it,” he says. ”The only thing you thought of with USA is wrestling.” Though the network recently introduced two new original action series — ”The Huntress,” about a mother/ daughter bounty hunting team, and ”Cover Me,” an action comedy about an FBI family — they’ve yet to attract ”Nikita” size audiences.
Now USA executives are busy honing a post WWF strategy. Relles says the fall schedule will use new series, original movies, classic action pics from its film library, and — like its broadcast competitors — reality TV: ”Ego Challenge,” the multisport team competition from ”Survivor” creator Mark Burnett (due April 2001) and more episodes of ”Last Man Standing” (which debuted Aug. 20). Based on the critically acclaimed 1998 documentary ”Hands on a Hardbody,” ”Standing” offers contestants a chance to win an expensive object through an endurance contest: Whoever holds on the longest wins. The first ”Standing” standoff, for example, was held in Nebraska, where farmers competed for a tractor. ”We’re thinking of doing it with a Mac G4 in Harvard Square for all the students or for a lifetime parking space in New York City,” says Relles. ”The fun part is tailoring the show to the area.” Too bad USA’s chiefs couldn’t keep their hands on the WWF.