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Gaspin' for air



The answer is: U-S-A! U-S-A!

The question up for discussion today is, which cable channel is best? And choosing between the pool of possible candidates is as subjective as deciding which act dominated last night's America's Got Talent. Those who read this idiot-box-watcher's opinions may have discerned that I have an affection for the offerings of TNT, but Comedy Central boasts the twin titans of Colbert and Stewart, TBS has become a sitcom colossus on the urban idiocy of Tyler Perry, AMC keeps winning drama series Emmys and my wife seems superglued to whatever housewives-cooking-fashion hodgepodge Bravo is featuring.

However, a highly significant but largely overlooked transaction in Burbank, Calif., recently may help identify one clear front-runner among the bunch. Jeff Gaspin, president and COO of NBC Universal's cable entertainment group, topped by USA, was promoted to chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment — the whole shootin' match, including the NBC network — while NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman left to pursue those elusive "other interests." In TV terms, this is equivalent to the manager of your AAA affiliate moving up to run the big-league club. And the change is fitting since, as we all know, NBC has been Gaspin for some time.

Truth to tell, Gaspin, with his dynamic USA chief lieutenant Bonnie Hammer, has spearheaded what is arguably one of the finest collections of original programming anywhere on television. In fact, it's better than that: Statistically, USA is the No. 1 franchise in all of basic cabledom, regularly seen in more than 98.5 million American homes each week, and for the first quarter of this year averaged more than 3.2 million viewers in prime time. That's a higher nightly number than any cable channel in history. Most nights, according to Nielsen Media Research, it even beats the fifth broadcast network, the CW.

How? A snazzy combination of well-written, smartly constructed series; a catchy positioning statement, "Characters Welcome," that embraces everything from WWE wrestlers and the irrepressibly foolish James Roday and Dulé Hill in the fake-psychic buddy comedy Psych to distinctive off-network hits like House, NCIS and Law & Order: SVU; and abbreviated, staggered "season" schedules that keep first-run episodes flowing constantly. USA is in the midst of such a changeover, as the summer finales of my favorite show, the sexy-cool spy saga Burn Notice (featuring Royal Oak's Bruce Campbell), In Plain Sight and Law & Order: Criminal Intent give way to season premieres of Psych and Monk. (Don't worry, fans: Their reruns will permeate USA's lineup until new episodes return.)

Monk, starring one of the nicest guys in showbiz, Tony Shalhoub, as TV's defective detective, is the series that launched USA's "Characters Welcome" brand. It will merit considerable attention as it begins its eighth and final season (Fridays, 9 p.m.), preferring to bow out gracefully —  and with a glittering array of guest stars — before its quality fades. In my initial review of In Plain Sight in May 2008, I wrote, "Regrettably, like the people in the federal witness protection program it dramatizes, this show desperately needs to assume a fresh identity." So maybe I was a bit hasty. This show has grown on me, perhaps because snarky, acid-tongued U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) is routinely surrounded by so many needy, emotionally fragile characters that she seems almost sympathetic by comparison. And while Law & Order: CI clearly has lost much of the zest and complexity that distinguished it before its move from NBC, it's still better than half the crime procedurals now littering prime time.

USA has a new fall series in the wings, White Collar, an It Takes a Thief-like romp featuring Saved by the Bell's Tiffani Thiessen (what happened with that reunion photo?), Sex and the City's Willie Garson, and Matt Bomer as the roguish crook. It has greenlighted the pilot for a new CIA action hour called Covert Affairs. While Conan is being pimp-slapped in the ratings by Letterman and NBC's prime-time lineup scuffles to remain upright, USA (with its sister network, SyFy) added $1 billion to NBC Universal's bottom line last year through ad sales combined with cable subscription fees. That's enough for everybody to be Gaspin.

Why Not Heck's Kitchen?:
Nobody drops more F-bombs and deleted expletives on TV than chef Gordon Ramsay, slave-driver of the hit FOX reality competition Hell's Kitchen (8 p.m. Tuesdays). Attention, FCC: Audaciously, FOX has tapped Ramsay to go on the air live during the upcoming holiday season in a one-hour special called Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live Dec. 15. Ramsay's reaction? You'll be shocked.

"I don't enjoy cursing, actually," he said in a recent phone interview. "It's [restaurant] industry language when they curse. I always say initially, let your food do the talking."

In Ramsay's kitchen, that's some spicy food.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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