There goes the network 'hood.
That's the buzz among some TV insiders with regard to United Paramount Network, the 4-year-old service that has featured programs starring and targeted to African Americans in its bid to become a profitable broadcast network.
Industry observers say that UPN, under new President and Chief Executive Dean Valentine, is changing direction and moving away from its menu of predominantly African American, urban comedies. They suspect that some of the current programming may be dumped in favor of shows geared to white viewers.
But in an interview at UPN's West Los Angeles office, Valentine emphatically denied that he is abandoning the African American audience or turning down projects featuring black stars and producers. What he does want, he said, is an "all-inclusive" television network built on a foundation of solid writing and quality programming that will attract all viewers regardless of color--a requirement that he indicated not all of the current programs meet.
"We are changing course," Valentine said in response to the speculation. "We're trying to become an inclusive network rather than narrowcasting to one group of people. It doesn't mean that we want to abandon that group of people. It doesn't mean, 'Get lost, get out of here.' We're happy to have them; it's home. We just want to say to a bunch of other people, 'Hey, look, there's great programming here. Come watch us.' "
He added that one thing UPN's audience can count on seeing in September is "a lot of new shows and new marketing. A number of the shows we have now are working for us and doing well. But we're interested in broadening and attracting as many people as possible. The new UPN will have some of the old UPN buried within it."
Of UPN's current comedy lineup, Valentine said he was happy, by and large, with "Moesha," "Malcolm & Eddie," "Good News" and "In the House." "But the quality of all the shows can be improved," he added. "There is room for growth."
He said he can't imagine where the perception that UPN was abandoning African American shows originated. He noted that one of his first moves after being made president last September was to cancel the freshman sitcom "Head Over Heels," a show that had no black cast members.
Valentine said that his principal goal is to fill a hole left by the four major broadcast networks in what he called a "basically mindless pursuit of demographics."
"What's happening with the broadcast networks over the last couple of years is that they have increasingly moved away from what you would consider the broadcast public and the American middle class," he said. "Network TV has said to them, 'We don't want you. You don't make enough money. You have too many kids. You live in the wrong ZIP Code. We only want you if you live in L.A., are 32 years old and work at a major magazine.' That is the message that the networks are sending out to the people of this country."
Valentine said the majority of people think of themselves as middle-class, and that is the audience he will try to reach. "I'd define middle class as anyone who doesn't live in Brentwood, Beverly Hills or Manhattan between Battery Park and 96th Street," he said. "I'll take everyone outside of that and be happy to have them."
Although he said it was too early to name any specific projects the network is developing, Valentine said he has gotten support and encouragement from the creative community: "There is tremendous interest in what we're doing." He added that he was not interested in a continuation of the feud between UPN and WB, its rival to become the fifth successful broadcast network.
"We see the WB just like anyone else we're in competition with," he said.
Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, which produces the urban teenage comedy "Moesha," praised Valentine and his new approach.
"Dean is on the right track," Lyttle said. "He is a refreshing change from the previous administration. He is very smart, very good to work with, and he likes to win."
A crucial part of Valentine's strategy involves "Moesha," the network's second most popular show (after "Star Trek: Voyager"). The title character already has moved to a predominantly white school, and Valentine and Lyttle say they hope to expand the audience further by adding plot and story elements that will make the show more accessible to an older audience while retaining the comedy's youth-oriented urban touch.
Lyttle said: "The flavor of the show will remain true. Our object is to increase the audience by giving them stuff they haven't seen before."
"Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age show," Valentine said. "It's within an African American context, and that's what gives the show its flavor and texture. But ultimately its themes go beyond that. We want to broaden it beyond age. We don't want to be the teen network."