USA Network originally launched on September 22, 1977 as the Madison Square Garden Network (not to be confused with the New York City regional sports network of the same name). The network was founded by cable provider UA-Columbia Cablevision and Kay Koplovitz. The channel was one of the first national cable television channels, using satellite delivery as opposed to microwave relay to distribute its programming to cable systems. Initially, the network ran a mix of college and less well-known professional sports, similar to those found during the early years of ESPN. The channel began its broadcast day after 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time on weekdays and 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time on weekends.
On April 9, 1980, the channel changed its name to USA Network after the ownership structure was reorganized under a joint operating agreement by UA-Columbia and the then-MCA Inc./Universal City Studios. That fall, USA began signing on at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time on weekdays; it also added some talk shows and a children's program called Calliope to its schedule. Sports programming began airing at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time weekdays, and aired all day on weekends. In the fall of 1981, USA began its daily programming at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time, with talk shows and children's programs running until 12:00 p.m., sports airing from 12:00 p.m. onward during weekends and until 3:00 p.m. weekdays, talk shows from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. weekdays, and sports airing again after 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
Later, in 1982, Time Inc. and Gulf+Western's Paramount Pictures unit (now part of Viacom) would buy stakes in the venture. The three partners had a non-compete clause that would prevent them from owning other basic cable networks independently from the USA joint venture. Said clause would cause Time Inc. to drop out of the venture in 1987, as the company attempted to buy CNN from Ted Turner and run it independently from USA. MCA/Paramount subsequently became the sole owners of the channel (with each company owning a 50% interest). In the fall of 1982, USA began operating on a 24-hour-a-day schedule, running a mix of talk shows, a children's program, and a low-budget movie from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The channel began running a mix of 1960s and 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons each weekday evening from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. as part of the USA Cartoon Express block, with sports programming airing after 7:00 p.m., which were rebroadcast during the overnight hours. Weekends featured a mix of movies, some older drama series and talk shows during the morning hours, and sports during the afternoons and evenings. Overnights consisted of old low-budget films and film shorts, and music as part of a show called Night Flight.
Between 1984 and 1986, USA began shifting away from sports programming, and began focusing on general entertainment programs not found on broadcast stations, including some less common network drama series and cartoons.
One tradition on USA was an afternoon lineup of game show reruns mixed in with several original low-budget productions that aired over the years. It began in October 1984 with reruns of The Gong Show and Make Me Laugh. In September 1985, the network began airing a revival of the mid-1970s game show Jackpot; two more original game shows, Love Me, Love Me Not and a revival of the short-lived 1980 series Chain Reaction, were added in September 1986. More shows were progressively added soon afterward such as The Joker's Wild, Tic-Tac-Dough, Press Your Luck, High Rollers and Hollywood Squares (with John Davidson), along with Wipeout, Face the Music and Name That Tune. In June 1987, the channel debuted another original game show, Bumper Stumpers. When it began, the game show block ran for an hour, but expanded significantly the following year. By 1989, the network ran game shows Monday through Fridays from 12:00 to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
In January 1989, USA debuted USA Up All Night, a showcase of low-budget feature films that aired as part of its weekend overnight schedule. Up All Night became a cult favorite among viewers for the comedic wraparound segments that were usually shown during breaks leading into (and sometimes, out of) commercials and between films that were hosted by comedian Gilbert Gottfried and model/actress Rhonda Shear (the latter of whom replaced original co-host Caroline Schlitt in 1991); the program was discontinued in March 7, 1998, however late night movie telecasts on USA continued to be branded under the "Up All Night" banner until 2002.
Short news updates, branded as USA Updates, were shown from as early as 1989 until 2000. These segments were first produced out of KYW-TV in Philadelphia, owing to the fact that the station had already produced a number of syndicated news services (including the Group W Newsfeed) and Steve Bell, the former newsreader on Good Morning America, was employed as a primary anchor at the station. However, when KYW's news operations were heavily revamped in response to falling ratings in 1991, production of USA Updates was then taken over by the All News Channel (operated by Hubbard Broadcasting and Viacom's joint venture, CONUS Communications). The ANC-produced updates continued through 2000 (ANC was suffering heavily around this time due to competition with other cable news channels such as CNN and the then-similarly formatted Headline News, and ended up shutting down in 2002); USA Network has not carried any news programming since the news updates were discontinued.
The tradition of game show reruns continued into the 1990s with the $25,000 and $100,000 Pyramids, the early 1990s revivals of The Joker's Wild and Tic-Tac-Dough as well as other well-known shows such as Scrabble, Sale of the Century, Talk About and Caesars Challenge. Additionally, two more original game shows were added in June 1994: Free 4 All and Quicksilver. In September 1991, the block was reduced to three hours, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Eastern. However, an additional hour was added in March 1993. In November 1994, the game show block was cut back to only two hours, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. On September 24, 1992, USA launched a sister network, the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), focusing on science fiction series and films. In September 1993, USA adopted a new on air look centering on the slogan "The Remote Stops Here", with flat graphics suggesting a television camera's in-lens symbols and music consisting of electric guitar and synthesized noises (though the movie presentation openers were retained from the previous look).
In 1994, Paramount Pictures parent Paramount Communications was sold to Viacom; the following year, MCA was acquired by Seagram. In April 1996, Viacom, which also owned MTV Networks, launched a new classic television network called TV Land. MCA subsequently sued Viacom for breach of contract, claiming that it had violated the non-compete clause in its joint venture agreement with MCA. A judge presiding over the case sided with MCA, and Viacom subsequently sold its stake in USA and the Sci-Fi Channel to Seagram for $1.7 billion. In turn, Seagram sold a controlling interest in the networks to Barry Diller in February 1998, which led to the creation of USA Networks, Inc.; the company also merged the cable channels with Diller's existing television properties including the Home Shopping Network and its broadcasting unit Silver King Broadcasting (which was restructured as USA Broadcasting, and eventually sold its stations to Univision Communications in 2001 to form the nucleus of Telefutura).
In October 1995, the network dropped the entire game show block; it was replaced with a block called USA Live, which carried reruns of Love Connection and The People's Court, with live hosted wraparound segments between shows; that block was dropped by 1997 (some of the game shows that USA had aired can still be seen on GSN). In 1994, USA began simulcasting the upstart business news channel Bloomberg Information TV each weekday morning from 5:00 to 8:00 a.m. Eastern and Pacific Time (and later, from 5:00 to 6:00 a.m. Eastern and Pacific on Saturdays); in 2004, the Bloomberg simulcast moved to E!, where it ran until 2007 (USA was actually the second television network to simulcast Bloomberg's programming, the now-defunct American Independent Network also carried a simulcast of the channel during the mid-1990s).
In July 1996, the network unveiled a new on-air appearance, which included the introduction of a new logo (incorporating a star ridged into the "U" of the now-serifed "USA" logotype), and a three-note jingle. Network IDs, feature presentation intros for movies and promo graphics were based around a behind-the-scenes look at the fictional "USA Studios"; some of the IDs showed people in the control room, while a studio that was being set-up by a crew was the backdrop for the "Tonight" menu that displayed the evening's schedule. Opening sequences leading into movie telecasts showed people running through the "USA Studios Film Vault". The new look coincided with a shift in focus, more towards off-network reruns and original programming; game shows and court shows were dropped from the schedule, while cartoons were phased out. USA Studios also became the branding for USA-produced programming at this point.
In September 1996, USA replaced the USA Cartoon Express with the action-oriented children's block, USA Action Extreme Team; the channel discontinued its animation block outright in September 1998 (other than airing the first-run teen sitcom USA High and reruns of Saved by the Bell: The New Class from 1997 to 2001, USA has not aired children's programming since that time), and replaced it with a block called "USAM", which advertised itself as "Primetime Comedy in the Morning". The block mainly featured sitcoms originally aired on network television that were cancelled before making it to 100 episodes (such as The Jeff Foxworthy Show, Hearts Afire and Something So Right); however, for a time, the block also included the 1989–1994 episodes of the Bob Saget run of America's Funniest Home Videos. "USAM" was discontinued in 2001; by that point, the only sitcoms airing on USA were daytime and late night reruns of Martin and overnight airings of Living Single, Cheers and Wings, with drama series and movies populating much of the channel's daytime and primetime schedule.
In 2000, USA Networks bought Canadian media company North American Television, Inc. (a joint partnership between the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Power Corporation of Canada), owner of cable television channels Trio and Newsworld International (the CBC continued to handle programming responsibilities for NWI until 2005, when eventual USA owner Vivendi sold the channel to a group led by Al Gore, who relaunched it as Current TV).
In 2001, USA Networks sold its non-shopping television and film assets (including USA Network, the Sci-Fi Channel, Trio, USA Films (which was rechristened as Focus Features) and Studios USA) to Vivendi Universal. USA and the other channels were folded into Vivendi's Universal Television Group.
In July 2002, the channel debuted Monk, which became one of USA Network's first breakout hit series. It is the comedy-drama police procedural that starred Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk, a former San Francisco police inspector-turned-consultant who suffers from various obsessive-compulsive behaviors that include the ability to pay attention to detail when solving crimes. It ran for eight seasons until it ended on December 4, 2009.
In 2003, General Electric agreed to merge NBC and its sibling companies with Vivendi Universal's North American-based filmed entertainment assets, including Universal Pictures and Universal Television Group in a multibillion-dollar purchase, renaming the merged company NBC Universal. GE retained an 80% ownership stake in the new company, while Vivendi retained a 20% stake. NBC Universal officially took over as owner of USA and its sibling cable channels (except for Newsworld International) in 2004. That year, USA premiered the sci-fi series The 4400. In 2006, USA premiered Psych, a comedy-drama focusing on Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a man with a photographic memory and learned observational skills who claims he is psychic after being falsely accused as an accomplice in a series of murders and opens up a detective agency with childhood friend Burton Guster (Dulé Hill) as an unwitting partner; the series ran for eight seasons (becoming the network's longest-running series) until it ended in March 2014.
On May 13, 2007 (in advance of NBC's 2007–08 fall upfronts presentation), NBC Universal announced that new episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent would be moved to USA beginning with the drama's seventh season in the fall of 2007; episodes would then be re-aired later in the season on NBC, most likely to shore up any programming holes created by the cancellation of a failed new series. Although this is not the first time a broadcast series has moved to cable (USA had acquired first-run rights to the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from NBC in 1987, while The Paper Chase had moved beforehand from CBS to Showtime in 1983), it marked the first time that a series which moved its first-run episodes from broadcast to cable television would continue to air episodes on a broadcast network while it was still a first-run program. On December 7, 2007, it was announced that USA Network would continue broadcasting first-run episodes of WWE Raw until 2010.
In 2008, USA announced a new original series In Plain Sight, starring Mary McCormack, focusing on a United States Marshal working for the Witness Protection Program. The series debuted on June 1 of that year, and became USA's highest-rated series premiere since the 2006 debut of Psych, with 5.3 million viewers. The USA original series Burn Notice, starring Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen, a dismissed spy who becomes an unlicensed private investigator, also made its debut in 2008.
The channel had adopted a "blue sky" approach to original programming, in order to differentiate it from other general cable channels. Original programming under this approach included Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar, and Psych. These blue sky programs began exceeding network offerings in viewers.
In early 2009, USA Network acquired the network television rights for 24 recent and upcoming Universal Pictures films for $200 million. Among the films included in the deal were Milk, Frost/Nixon, Duplicity, State of Play, Land of the Lost and Funny People.
In 2010, USA Network, which had been airing its original series on Friday and Sunday evenings for several years, began to move its original series earlier into the work week. After the 2009–10 season break, Burn Notice resumed airing the remainder of its third season on Thursdays in the spring of 2010; White Collar moved to Tuesdays for the second half of its first season, while Psych moved from its longtime Friday night slot to Wednesdays.
In 2011, control and majority ownership of then-parent NBCUniversal passed from General Electric to Comcast. Comcast would buy out GE's remaining ownership in NBCU two years later. USA Network was considered the key piece of the NBCUniversal-Comcast merger. Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan projected that USA contributed $9.5 billion to NBCUniversal's $44.8 billion value, with NBC contributing only $408 million.
In 2014, the channel had dropped 18% in viewership and out of first place among the major cable channels. USA has been a key NBCUniversal asset accounting for one-third of advertising revenue for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group and $1 billion in annual earnings over the past few years. USA has dropped its "blue sky" approach, as they had already started to move away from it with Suits in 2011, and reduce its comedy and reality slate. Stacey Lynn Schulman, executive vice president of strategy and analytics at Katz Media Group, placed USA and other cable channels as broadcast network-like in offering broad-based programming.
In August 2016, NBCUniversal made a deal for the Harry Potter films to be shown on USA, Syfy, and NBC plus additional usage at its amusement parks. The films including the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” spinoff series would switch to USA and its sister channel from Disney-ABC's Freeform starting in 2018. The deal ends in 2025.
USA Network has achieved a viewership foothold with its original programming; this began in the 1990s with initial hits such as Silk Stalkings and La Femme Nikita, which were gradually followed in the following two decades by series such as Monk, Psych, White Collar, Covert Affairs, Mr Robot, Shooter, Suits, Burn Notice and Royal Pains. Most of its original series are scripted dramas, some of which incorporate comedic elements.
In addition to its original productions, the network airs syndicated reruns of current and former network series such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent (which spent the final four seasons of its run as a first-run program on USA) and NCIS. The network also broadcasts a variety of films from the Universal Studios library and select films from other movie studios (such as Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Warner Bros. Entertainment), airing primarily as part of its overnight and weekend schedule, and occasionally during primetime on nights when original programming or marathons of its acquired programs are not scheduled.
Since 1984, the network had been the longtime home of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (until 2016). USA is also the home of WWE's flagship cable program Raw; the series originally aired on the channel from its debut in January 1993 (when the promotion was known as the World Wrestling Federation) until the series moved to TNN (now Spike) in September 2000, before returning to the channel in October 2005. As of 2016, it is also the home of WWE's secondary weekly show, SmackDown (moved from sister channel Syfy).
USA Network has a longstanding history with sports, dating back to its existence as the Madison Square Garden Network. The network carried Major League Baseball games on Thursday nights from 1979 to 1983, and the NHL on USA ran from 1979 to 1985. College Football on USA ran from 1980 to 1986, and its telecast of the 1981 Liberty Bowl was the first college bowl game to be exclusively broadcast on cable television. The NBA on USA also aired from 1979 to 1984, the first time that the NBA had a cable television partner. Professional wrestling company World Wrestling Entertainment has had a longstanding relationship with the network; WWF Prime Time Wrestling broadcast on USA from 1985-1993 until it was superseded by WWE Raw from 1993-2000, and again from 2005 to the present. WWE's Tuesday night show WWE SmackDown also started airing on the network in January 2016.
For 17 years from 1981 to 1998, USA aired a weekly boxing show, USA Tuesday Night Fights, which showcased bouts featuring up-and-coming boxers. Tennis on USA aired professional tournaments in the United States from 1984 to 2008, and was the longtime cable home of the US Open before its cable television rights moved to ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel in 2009. The PGA Tour on USA covered the opening two rounds of the Masters Tournament from 1982 to 2007, Ryder Cup matches from 1989 to 2010, and various other events.
Upon the 2004 purchase of Vivendi Universal by NBC, USA's sports division was immediately merged into NBC Sports. Since 2004, the network has broadcast select events from the Olympic Games, as part of an expansion of NBCUniversal's broadcast rights to the Summer and Winter Olympics that allowed several of the company's cable channels rights to telecast Olympic events live (some of which are later re-aired on tape delay on NBC as part of the network's primetime and late night Olympic coverage). USA Network also carried games from the International Ice Hockey Federation in 2006 and 2010.
During the 2014 Winter Olympics, USA aired English Premier League soccer matches in lieu of sister channel NBCSN, due to that channel's full devotion to carrying coverage of Olympic events. After ratings success with those matches, USA began to air mid-afternoon Saturday games weekly during the 2015–16 season. USA also participates in NBC Sports's broader effort of carrying all ten Survival Sunday matches across its numerous channels the second week of May each year. Starting in 2015, USA Network became used as an overflow feed for coverage of NHL playoff games that cannot be aired by either NBCSN or CNBC. In 2016, USA will air three NASCAR races (the Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International and two Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Bristol Motor Speedway) due to NBC broadcasting the 2016 Summer Olympics.
USA Network operates a high definition simulcast feed of the channel, that broadcasts in the 1080i resolution format. The HD, which was launched on October 3, 2007, is currently available on all major cable providers.
In February 2007, Shaw Communications submitted an application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), to carry the USA Network in Canada as a foreign service that would be eligible for carriage by domestic cable and satellite providers (and to automatically allow all English-language general interest cable networks from the United States into Canada). However, because of programming rights issues with other Canadian specialty channels, certain programs would be subjected to blackout restrictions, including WWE Raw.
In September 2007, the CRTC refused Shaw's request to carry USA Network in Canada on the basis that the channel carried too much programming that overlapped with the English language digital cable specialty channel Mystery TV (which is then owned by Canwest – later Shaw Media – and formerly, Groupe TVA). However, on September 20, the CRTC stated that it would reconsider their denial of the eligible foreign carriage proposal for USA Network at a later date, when Shaw instead offered to carry the channel on the digital cable tiers of its Shaw Cable systems. In spite of this, the CRTC has since rejected the restructured proposal on the basis that USA's programming would be competitive with Mystery TV.
Many of USA's original programs currently air on either Showcase or Bravo. WWE programming that airs on USA also airs on Rogers Media-owned Sportsnet 360.
Regional versions of USA Network previously operated in certain South American countries (such as Argentina and Brazil); in September 2004, most of these services were renamed under the Universal Channel banner to take advantage of the more well-known brand, and to reduce the awkwardness of a channel branded with the initials of another nation.