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New Year Brings 2 New Networks : WB Television and United Paramount Prepare for Their Premieres This Month. But Can They Really Survive Against the Big Four?

January 02, 1995|DANIEL HOWARD CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jamie Kellner, the CEO who in the 1980s helped build a ragged formation of small TV stations into a competitive fourth network for the Fox Broadcasting Co., sat back in his new office on the Warner Bros. lot last month watching a frog sing and dance with a top hat and cane.

"We had this frog tested," said Kellner, who was asked by Warner Bros. last year to help the studio launch its own national TV network.

Michigan J. Frog, who appeared in only one 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon, was chosen as the WB Network's glib green mascot. He'll get more exposure this summer, in an all-new theatrical short being made by original creator Chuck Jones to screen with the studio's "Batman Forever."

Kellner hopes the frog will give him a leg up on his cross-town rival, the United Paramount Network. Both networks, backed by major entertainment companies looking for new ways to distribute their product, are elbowing their way into the crowded TV environment this month with the intent to become broadcast television's "fifth network."

With network viewing levels eroding at the rate of 4% a year, and the vast majority of TV stations throughout the country already affiliated with either ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, both aspiring networks face a herculean task. Their parent companies--Time Warner and Viacom--are loaded with debt. But both networks say they are prepared to spend years and tens of millions of dollars to get their efforts off the ground.

WB Network debuts Jan. 11 on KTLA-TV Channel 5 with four original sitcoms. Kellner tapped into much of the same talent he used early at Fox--the producers of "Married . . . With Children" and Shawn and Marlon Wayans, little brothers of "In Living Color" stars Keenen Ivory and Damon Wayans. WB Network will air only one night a week, Wednesday, for now.

United Paramount debuts Jan. 16 on KCOP-TV Channel 13 with the two-hour premiere of "Star Trek: Voyager." United Paramount will air a mix of original dramas and sitcoms on Mondays and Tuesdays, with a weekend movie block. Both networks have long-term plans to expand to seven nights a week and add children's programming and late-night.

But the first order of business is to get viewers. With the tidal wave of TV that's being piped into American homes these days, viewers will likely have a hard time distinguishing WB Network or United Paramount from cable and syndicated programming.

"In the beginning, they will look to viewers like a bunch of syndicated shows, with Warner Bros. or Paramount tags," said Joel Segal, executive vice president for the New York advertising agency, McCann-Erickson. "Viewers could easily pass right over them. They won't recognize them as networks, per se."

For that reason, each network has been working hard and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to create an identity that will help it stand out. WB Network and United Paramount are adapting Fox's strategy early by going for a youthful audience--with target ages between 18 and 34--which advertisers pay a premium to reach.

United Paramount took out a three-dimensional ad in the Jan. 8 edition of Rolling Stone, encouraging readers to stare at the page to detect the hidden logo, which incorporates the letters UPN into a circle, a triangle and a square. For some time, United Paramount has been airing glossy TV commercials featuring a rock opera, playing up Paramount's heritage in the TV business.

Meanwhile, WB Network is getting that frog out. "Four out of five men between the ages of 18 and 34 know this frog and one of his songs," Kellner said of his animated impresario, those songs being "Hello My Baby" and "The Michigan Rag." The first of a dozen "Roger Rabbit"-style network IDs featuring Michigan are now airing, and his likeness went up on the sides of hundreds of buses in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other major cities during the holidays.

Kellner's primary mantra is "programming and promotion." If WB Network can put on good shows and make a lot of noise to draw attention to them, Kellner believes it can survive. One thing he learned at the irreverent Fox was that brand names--such as the cool, contemporary image conjured up by MTV's moniker--become self-perpetuating, attracting both viewers and advertising dollars.

"Whereas the other networks have this very serious voice from heaven in their promos--'You are watching CBS,' and it sounds like the same voice on each network--we have this wild, crazy character to bring viewers in," Kellner said.

If WB Network has the frog, United Paramount has "the franchise." The "Star Trek" empire of movies, TV series, books and merchandising has generated $1 billion in revenue for Paramount. That's why United Paramount chose "Voyager," part of the most successful TV series franchise in television history, as the cornerstone of its venture.

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