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Buffy The Vampire SlayerFangs for the Memories, Buffy
By Steve Hockensmith
Friday 23 May 2003, by Webmaster
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Joss Whedon is trying to break your heart.
If he gets his way, millions of TV viewers will be soaking their Kleenexes with bitter tears come Tuesday. That’s the night "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the long-running horror-fantasy-action-comedy-drama-and-occasional-musical series he created, comes to an end.
"It’s my great wish that (fans) are very sad," Whedon says. "If they’re not sad, I’ve messed up."
Few would argue that Whedon has "messed up" with "Buffy." The series has been blessed with critical acclaim and a cult following from the very beginning. It established a new archetype for tough-but-tender female characters and became a pop-culture juggernaut that helped establish one fledgling network and gave a much-needed boost to another.
In addition, it made a star out of Sarah Michelle Gellar and spawned a spinoff, a slew of licensed products and talk of an ongoing franchise. So rest assured Whedon, fans are very, very sad to see "Buffy" ride off into the Sunnydale sunset.
"Losing ’Buffy’ is a big loss for TV in some ways," TV Guide senior TV critic and professed "Buffy"-holic Matt Roush says. "The show is incredibly adventurous and always surprising. It’s been one of the most fascinating rides of any show I’ve encountered."
That ride got off to a bumpy start five years before the show actually premiered. In 1992, a big-screen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" grossed just more than $16 million during its domestic box office run, driving a stake through the heart of any franchise hopes — or so it seemed. But Gail Berman, then an executive at Sandollar Television, fell in love with Whedon’s original script for the film, seeing in it something she found lacking on television: a young, kick-ass female hero.
"This was before ’La Femme Nikita’ was on television, before ’Alias,’ before anything that resembled a teen action soap," says Berman, now president of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting Co. "Nobody was doing anything like that, and it just seemed like the time was right."
Not everyone agreed. The Fox network passed ... twice. But Berman found true believers at the WB Network, and on March 10, 1997, "Buffy" was resurrected on the fledgling network.
Week after week, teenager Buffy Summers and her motley crew of high school sidekicks have battled vampires, demons, ghosts, zombies and every other supernatural menace under the sun (or full moon). Although on paper, crossbreeding "The X-Files" and "Saved by the Bell" hardly seems like a foolproof plan for winning glowing reviews, TV critics were soon raving about the new series — despite their initial skepticism.
"The pedigree was just so iffy," Roush admits. "It came on what was, at the time, an almost nonexistent network. And it had arguably one of the worst titles ever in terms of getting any kind of serious attention. But the minute it came on the air, it just seemed so confident and provocative. It completely took me by surprise."
Roush wasn’t the only one caught off guard. Critical hosannas and an instant (and influential) fan base of TV reviewers were the last things Whedon himself thought the show would garner.
"I had expected us to make this show and slip under the radar," Whedon recalls. "I thought we’d be lumped in with ’Relic Hunter’ and not be noticed by anybody. We’d just be making really good shows we really cared about on the Q.T."
Far from staying hush-hush, the series made enough noise to draw some much-needed attention — and respect — to its network.
"It established that an up-and-coming network like the WB could actually deliver a unique, quality programming environment," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vp, director global research integration for media-buying giant Initiative Media North America.
And while it was winning over industry watchers, "Buffy" was accomplishing something else that was even more important — winning over TV watchers, in particular, young female ones.
"A lot of the genesis of ’Buffy’ was commenting on all the limitations that are placed on girls in horror movies and genre pieces and sort of busting all that wide open," series executive producer Marti Noxon says. "That’s why it was called ’Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ because a girl named Buffy shouldn’t be able to do what she does (according to genre conventions). I think female viewers really responded to that."
But the audience for the show wasn’t limited to young girls, and "Buffy" quickly became one of the WB’s biggest draws, boosting ad revenues and shaping the network’s image. "It was intrinsically linked to the WB," Koerner says. "I think every viewer knew, ’Buffy-WB. WB-Buffy."’
But as strong as that link might have been in viewers’ minds, it proved to be a great deal weaker in reality. The WB’s licensing agreement for "Buffy" ended in 2000, and the negotiations that followed turned sour in a very public way. 20th Century Fox Television wanted a per-episode fee that would cover the cost of production; the WB didn’t. Thus began a war of words between the two sides.
That feud took a surprising turn when a third party jumped into the fray: UPN bested the WB’s offer. Suddenly, "Buffy" — the series that had helped build the WB — was no longer a WB series.
"It was the first time that a studio took a show off a network that wanted it and put it on another network," WB president of entertainment Jordan Levin says. "To be put in that position — to lose a show that had been developed internally and was so tied to the network’s identity — was very discouraging."
"It was a wake-up call to executives on both sides of the fence — networks and studios," 20th Century Fox TV president Gary Newman says. "Simply amassing 120 or 150 episodes doesn’t guarantee a studio or its profit participants a return on their work. So now, as studios and networks enter into license agreements and contemplate renewals, I think there’s a greater sensitivity to the fact that each side has to protect their profitability."
Despite the acrimony that surrounded the unprecedented move, today, all three players can point to dividends they have reaped in its wake. 20th Century Fox TV landed a deal with UPN worth more than $100 million over two years while continuing to produce the "Buffy" spinoff, "Angel," for the WB. Although the series’ cost meant it wouldn’t be a moneymaker for UPN, "Buffy" delivered for the network in other ways.
"’Buffy’ was an established franchise with a built-in fan base that advertisers wanted to reach," UPN president of entertainment Dawn Ostroff says. "’Buffy’ helped increase UPN’s Tuesday night ratings while also providing a promotional platform for other shows on the network."
The network switch didn’t seem to hurt the show’s performance: It premiered on UPN on Oct. 2, 2001, with some of its biggest numbers ever. The Season 6 debut — in which Buffy returns from beyond the grave after sacrificing herself to save the world (long story) — brought in an average of 7.7 million viewers from 8-10 p.m., second only to the 7.9 million viewers it drew back in January 1998. That night, the show hit its highest marks ever in adults 18-49 (3.8 rating/10 share), adults 18-34 (4.5/14) and women 18-34 (5.1/13).
But those numbers soon began to shrink. According to Roush, some longtime viewers were turned off by the show’s story lines, including a lengthy sixth-season arc devoted to Buffy’s sexually charged but dysfunctional relationship with vampire Spike (James Marsters).
"Some elements of the show’s fandom turned on it," he says. "They’d say, ’It got too dark, it got too this, it got too that."’
Whedon acknowledges the fan complaints — while dismissing them as misguided.
"People talk about, ’Oh, the creative meltdown that was Season 6!’ I look at Season 6 and say, ’That’s some of the best work we’ve ever done,"’ he says. "I think when that backlash simmers down, people are going to realize that. I’m very proud of that year, so (the criticism annoys) me a little bit."
Noxon, however, attributes the decline to something vampires never have to worry about: old age.
"It’s natural attrition. Any show in its sixth or seventh season is going to have some burn off," she says. "Other than that, I think we were put in a very competitive time slot. Being up against (the WB’s Tuesday 8 p.m. drama) ’Gilmore Girls’ was a tough thing for us because many of the people who like ’Buffy’ would like ’Gilmore Girls."’
Despite the ratings slump, Ostroff says her network wanted to stick with "Buffy" for at least one more year. "UPN would love to have the show for another season," she says. "But we understand their decision to not continue."
That decision came about for a number of reasons: Star Gellar declared her intention to depart, co-star (and potential spinoff lead) Eliza Dushku committed to another project and the man who started it all, Whedon, desperately needed a break.
"There was no big meeting, no pulling of hair," Newman says. "It just felt as if it was time for the people involved to put this one to rest and move on to other things."
Although "Buffy" will be put to rest, the franchise it spawned lives on. "Angel" will carry the TV torch for the "Buffyverse," perhaps even getting a ratings boost from its sibling series’ departure. And Newman and Whedon say more spinoffs are in the works — they’re just not in any hurry to rush them into production.
"I’m sure we’ll be seeing episodes of ’Buffy’ on TV and DVDs for many years to come," Newman says. "There’s no urgency to put another spinoff out there. One of the strengths of the franchise is that this was a truly classic TV series; that helps it feel timeless."