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Sink-or-swim team - WB, UPN pool efforts as CW to stay afloat in TV world (buffy mention)

Dusty Saunders

Friday 21 July 2006, by Webmaster

HOLLYWOOD - Can a "new" broadcast network, created from two failing operations, survive in today’s multichannel, digital world?

That’s the question being debated here as the CW Network prepares to launch in September with a combination of programming from the WB and UPN. The CW even hopes to lure the 18-to-34 demographic - the same audience the two networks have competed for since premiering in 1995.

The CW, an alliance between CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Television (hence the "C" and "W" in its name), was announced last January. The merger took the media community by surprise, even though initial negotiations started around Thanksgiving, according to CBS Chairman Les Moonves.

Many experts have adopted a wait-and-see attitude about the viability of the merger. But nearly everyone agrees that the CW has a better chance of success than the WB and UPN, both of which faced increasing losses owing to declining audiences and soaring production costs.

In the past 11 years UPN has reported losses of more than $1 billion, while the WB lost around $700 million. The WB turned a profit in only two years; UPN never had a profitable year. The networks, unable to launch a major hit during the past four seasons, were simply battling one another for a small segment of the total audience.

Ironically, executives from both networks talked in the early ’90s about working together to build a single network. But both went their corporate ways: Paramount and Chris Craft Industries starting UPN and Warner Bros. and the Tribune Co. launching the WB.

One "showbiz" theory has Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as a major "villain" in the scenario, being partially responsible for the "slaying" of the two networks. The cult series, produced by 20th Century Fox, initially was on the WB and it became a major hit.

But in early 2001 the WB balked when Fox demanded $44 million annually to license the show to the network. So that fall Buffy moved to UPN, taking with her the WB’s identity as go-to-outlet for young viewers, particularly women.

But the move, the theory goes, hurt both networks because Buffy’s departure meant a loss of fans for the WB. And while the show attracted viewers to UPN, the audience growth wasn’t enough to justify the high price the network paid.

The challenge ahead

When the two networks were launched in 1995, the broadcasting landscape had a decidedly different look.

"No one 11 years ago realized there would be 250 channels and all these distribution platforms," said Jay Sures, a partner of United Talent Agency, which places actors in TV programming and movies. "Everything from cell phones, the Internet, iPods and digital recording devices."

The technological evolution in media has drawn many viewers away from traditional television outlets and schedules. And niche cable channels such as ESPN and MTV have produced loyal viewers who don’t scan the schedules.

Even with all the changes, Moonves, a major architect of the deal, remains confident that the CW can find an audience.

"This (merger) is much better than keeping UPN the way it was. (CBS-Viacom had been operating UPN since 2002). I think there’s a strong possibility the CW can show a profit during its first season."

Some might suggest the lack of new programming - only two series on the CW fall schedule are debuts - could be a deterrent to attracting viewers. Moonves counters that familiarity will be important.

"We have to get established with programming viewers are familiar with. Later, we can insert a lineup featuring more new shows."

Don’t expect the proposed lineup to disappear from the air quickly if ratings don’t start with a bang. The CW has production contracts of varying lengths with producers of its current series, so canceling those contracts would be financial suicide for the fledgling network.

Brian Lowry, veteran Variety television critic, concurs that the success of the CW depends a lot on controlling costs.

"The network can’t spend a lot of money right now on creating a new schedule," said Lowry, who added that "viewers are not going to be fooled, they’ll understand the CW is really not a new network.

"Still, the mix-and-match philosophy of taking popular programs from both networks could draw viewers, particularly in the young demographic. There’s reason for optimism."

Under terms of the merger, CBS controls the CW’s programming, marketing and research functions, while former WB employees oversee the network’s business operations.

Dawn Ostroff, who was president of UPN, is in charge of programming while John Matta, Warner Brothers chief operating officer, handles business operations.

"The fact that the network has one brand and aims at one constituency is a decided plus," says Tim Spengler, an executive vice president and broadcasting expert for Initiative, a global communications company. "Network television is all about content and creation. The network has good series like Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls to build upon."

A big key: how the advertising market responds as the season goes along. So far, the amount of "upfront" advertising dollars committed to the CW for this season is just more than $625 million, according to a Dow Jones report. Last year the WB brought home roughly $675 million and UPN secured $375 million.

Moving forward

The merger has produced one negative result locally and nationally. Approximately 100 employees of the two former networks in Denver have lost their jobs at UPN and WB2.

The merger also means one less place for Hollywood producers, writers and actors to shop a new series. And dozens of stations in cities across the country who were aligned with one of the networks are now scrambling to find prime-time programming.

In Denver, the CW lineup will be on WB2, which will undergo a name change in mid-September. "We’ll be known as CW2, a logical identification," says Jim Zerwekh, the station’s vice president and general manager.

Zerwekh points out another thing that might lead to success for the new network. Before, many WB series only produced 17 episodes a season, compared with the 20-plus shows aired on the other networks. "This meant we were airing reruns in key parts of the season. We’ve been assured that CW producers are filming a full season of shows."

KTVD-Channel 20, Denver’s UPN affiliate, should be in better shape than many WB2 or UPN affiliates, because of its recent sale to Gannett Broadcasting, owner of 9News. The company is putting together a prime-time lineup that includes a daily local 9 p.m. news, produced by 9News, and two series from the new MyNetworkTV studio.

The merger has produced some criticism from organizations that claim minority programming will be diminished, since several black-oriented series on UPN didn’t make the cut for the CW.

Ostroff claims the CW’s long- range strategy includes a concerted effort to program to a multicultural audience while striving to reach viewers through a highly interactive Web site that includes a section called the CW Lab.

Noting that the CW will be seen initially in 93 percent of the country, Ostroff says such coverage eventually should spell success. But she wouldn’t predict the CW initially would have more viewers than the combination of the WB and UPN.

"I think that ultimately we’ll wind up with more viewers than either network had," she says.

"It’s going to take a while to get everybody into the house and to communicate that there’s a channel where viewers can find their favorite shows."

The TV landscape

Here’s a look at network prime-time viewership for the 2005-2006 season, according to A.C. Nielsen Research. Figures show the average weekly prime-time audience for each network.

Overall viewing

• CBS: 12.6 million

• ABC: 10.7 million

• Fox: 10 million

• NBC: 9.7 million

• WB: 3.12 million

• UPN: 3.1 million

Viewership in the 18-34 demographic

• Fox: 2.5 million

• ABC: 2.1 million

• CBS: 1.74 million

• NBC: 1.72 million

• UPN: 940,000

• WB: 910,000

NOTE: Fox has seven hours less of weekly prime-time shows than the big three; WB and UPN currently have only 13 hours of weekly programming and don’t program at all on Saturday night.

On the air

The CW Network will reach 93% of the country’s broadcast viewers when it launches in September. In Denver, it will be carried on WB2. Here’s a look, by percentage, of where the station can be found across the rest of the country:

60% of the stations carrying the CW Network will be old WB affiliates

28% of the stations carrying the CW Network will be old UPN affiliates

12% of the stations carrying the CW Network will be on different stations entirely

Long-shot bet?

Is the advertising community worried about the CW Network? The "upfront" advertising dollars committed so far might suggest as much. According to a Dow Jones report, the CW has secured just more than $625 million in ad deals for this season. Last year the WB brought home roughly $675 million and UPN secured $375 million.


The CW Network will launch Sept. 20 with America’s Next Top Model. Other premiere dates:

• Sept. 25: 7th Heaven and the new Runaway

• Sept. 26: Gilmore Girls

• Sept. 27: One Tree Hill

• Sept. 28: Smallville and Supernatural

• Oct. 1: Everybody Hates Chris, All of Us, Girlfriends and the new The Game

• Oct. 3: Veronica Mars

Here’s the prime-time lineup:


• 6 p.m.: Everybody Hates Chris (currently on UPN)

• 6:30 p.m. All of Us (UPN)

• 7 p.m.:Girl Friends (UPN)

• 8 p.m.: America’s Next Top Model (UPN), a rerun of Wednesday’s hour


• 7 p.m.: 7th Heaven (WB)

• 8 p.m.: Runaway


• 7 p.m.: Gilmore Girls (WB)

• 8p.m.: Veronica Mars (UPN)


• 7 p.m.: America’s Next Top Model

• 8 p.m.: One Tree Hill


• 7 p.m.: Smallville

• 8 p.m.: Supernatural


• 7 p.m.: Friday Night Smackdown (UPN), two hours.