Chris McCumber ’89 brings winning identity to top cable network USA
By Dan Edelen
If you enjoy watching WWE wrestler John Cena apply a devastating suplex to Kane or detective Adrian Monk cringe at the sight of germ-laden evidence, Chris McCumber ’89 is one of the people to thank. As executive vice president of marketing, digital, and brand strategy, McCumber leads a 60-person team of professionals that has made USA Network the number one cable television destination since 2006.
McCumber, a dynamo with quick, bright answers to tough questions, relies on those traits to drive the strategic and creative vision at USA. He oversees the proliferation of the USA Network brand through marketing in both traditional and digital media that has netted industry kudos including Addy, Clio, and Web Marketing Association awards.
Industry accolades, exponential growth in viewers, and devotion to the USA Network brand weren’t the case in early 2004, though, when NBC Universal, the new owner of USA, handed then-Senior Vice President McCumber a career-defining task.
“We had no brand identity. People could tell you the shows, but couldn’t tell you about USA Network. People didn’t like the network’s flag motif and Americana.” McCumber says. “We had a big problem.”
War room discussions with select ad and creative agencies ensued, McCumber brainstorming with his team to find the linchpin that would unify USA’s programming and message. The answer came at an unlikely moment.
Bedridden with the flu, McCumber was discussing taglines with an advertising agency, wondering how any short phrase would capture the flavor of USA and generate lasting excitement. “Then all of the sudden, among a list of 50 taglines, there was one just two words long: ‘Characters Welcome,’” he recalls. “A light went on that cut through the fog of my flu: We should talk about people rather than a place. That unlocked the value within USA, because characters were the brand mantra.”
He adds with a smile, “That was one of my favorite points in my career.”
Four years later, “Characters Welcome” continues its momentum even outside shows and commercials. An upcoming coffee table book with photos from leading photographers will highlight the colorful places and characters that make up America. And as USA’s digital media guru, McCumber has evolved USANetwork.com into a social network destination with online games at the Character Arcade, the software of which now serves as the engine for similar efforts at other networks within NBC Universal.
McCumber also relishes his other role with USA, executive in charge of production for WWE Raw, the character-driven wrestling extravaganza and Monday-night ratings titan that McCumber says is “part reality series, part athletic event, and part male soap opera.”
Working with WWE head honcho Vince McMahon, McCumber and his team have created some epic, publicity-garnering ideas for Raw. “We were brainstorming what would be a great feud or match, and the idea of Donald Trump challenging Vince was funny. So we suggested it to Vince and he ran with it.” The “Battle of the Billionaires” Wrestlemania event proved wildly popular with fans eager to see the action—and watch eventual loser McMahon get his head shaved. McCumber was also delighted when Raw scored the coup of having presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain appear on the program, which contributed to some of its highest ratings ever.
“For USA, it’s about having a unique show that’s ‘blue sky’ positive and quirky in its characters,” he says. “You walk away from some TV shows and you feel depressed. USA fills a big niche providing positive, upbeat, fun programming.” With USA’s ratings soaring under the “Characters Welcome” message, the cable network routinely draws more viewers than its broadcast television rivals.
That desire to learn and craft creative ideas that drive USA had roots in Lafayette. With dad Bruce ’61 as a forerunner (and brother Tim ’92 following), McCumber came to the College and honed the skills he uses every day. He credits Josh Miller, professor of government and law: “He taught me how to write, to debate and present my ideas, and taught me how to think critically.”
“At a small school, you know everybody,” he adds. “I loved that. You have a lot of interactions with professors.”
As a government and law major, McCumber didn’t have dreams of becoming a network television executive. “Everyone in the TV business gets into it from left field,” he says. A former music director/DJ at Lafayette’s WJRH and a budding filmographer, McCumber sidestepped into what proved to be a natural progression thanks to a Lafayette connection at MTV. “At MTV, I started writing promos, started getting stuff on TV, got into marketing, and within that year knew I was never going to go to law school,” he says.
As a production assistant, McCumber’s break came when MTV spun off Ha!, which eventually became Comedy Central. “I was sitting in the same room with the heads of programming, marketing, research, and ad sales,” he recalls, “and you could see how a network was built from the ground up. You sink or swim, which is an incredible way to learn.”
McCumber now teaches his business to students at Columbia University and advises rising execs through NBC’s mentoring program. “I always remember the people who got me into the business, and I feel the need to repay that by helping others get in because I know how tough it is.”
A tough biz, but one that pays dividends for McCumber, USA Network, and a growing legion of fans of its shows.
“The water cooler still exists. People are talking about the shows. It’s entertainment, joy, escapism, and a shared communal experience that continues to happen with television. We bring happiness to people,” McCumber says. “What better thing could you do?”