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Fangs Bared Over 'Buffy'

Television * Fans fret as acrimony follows studio's agreement to move the hit show from WB to UPN in the fall.

April 23, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the end, Joss Whedon said Saturday, "I would like to think that most of my fan base is smart enough to use a remote."

It was a moment of understatement in the aftermath of the deal, announced late Friday, that sent Whedon's cult television hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from its familiar surroundings on the WB to UPN. Creator and executive producer Whedon, in fact, said he had gone online to ease anxiety among "Buffy's" fans--die-hards who start Web sites and chat endlessly about the series' lore, and who were now figurative children of a bitter divorce.

"I said, 'Hey, guys, everything's cool, stay calm,' " Whedon said of the message he posted from upstate New York, where he was attending a family reunion. "No matter what happens, it's the same show. And there will still be a Web site."

Back in Hollywood, meanwhile, the implications of the deal are being discussed in entirely different ways--with arch spin coming from both sides of a negotiation that was arch to begin with.

Those talks ended with UPN agreeing to pay about $2.3 million an episode for 44 installments of "Buffy," a deal worth more than $100 million to the series' studio, 20th Century Fox Television. That's roughly $22 million more than the WB's final offer of $1.8 million an episode to keep the series, which is currently in its fifth year. During talks with Fox, the WB also offered to pick up "Angel," Whedon's "Buffy" spinoff (and also owned by Fox), for two years beyond its current contract.

The UPN deal will become effective in the fall; the final WB episode of "Buffy," the show's 100th, airs May 22.

On Friday, as news of the deal leaked out, the WB accused Fox of making "an inauspicious decision for the television industry" by using "Buffy" to boost UPN, a struggling network whose status Fox and its corporate parent, News Corp., have a vested interest in improving. News Corp., in an August deal that is pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission, is poised to become the largest owner of UPN affiliates, including KCOP in Los Angeles.

UPN has lagged behind the WB in building a brand attractive to advertisers. Its biggest hit so far has been the professional wrestling series "WWF Smackdown!," a show whose populist appeal isn't as tempting to Madison Avenue as series like "Buffy."

But Fox Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow countered by saying, "We would have made the exact same deal if News Corp. didn't own a single UPN affiliated station. If News Corp.'s affiliated stations happen to benefit, good for them.

"Our goal was to protect Joss' vision by enabling him to shoot the show we believed he earned the right to shoot, and in the process cover our production costs on a going-forward basis," Grushow added.

The price of producing "Buffy," which stars Sarah Michelle Gellar in the title role, has reached $2 million an episode, and sources in the Fox camp asserted that the studio has been deficit-financing the series for five years and was only now looking to recoup its investment. But Fox does receive additional revenue on "Buffy" by selling rights to the show overseas as well as rights to the reruns in the U.S.

Whedon, for his part, reserved his harshest criticism for Turner Broadcasting CEO Jamie Kellner, who also oversees the WB. Arguing that "Buffy" defined the network, Whedon termed the WB's renewal offer "lame." "And quite frankly, if they had made an offer that was slightly less lame a year earlier, this probably never would have happened. But Jamie said, 'I won't budge an inch,' " said Whedon, indicating that other top WB executives supported the show.

Whedon also said that he had sent Kellner a letter several months ago complaining about public comments in which the WB chief indicated that "Buffy" wasn't an irreplaceable show. Kellner, with a reputation for drawing a hard line in such negotiations, has long signaled that his network's financial model didn't allow the WB to pay the amounts extracted from other networks in deals to renew such shows as ABC's "The Practice" or NBC's "Frasier." Around this time things got increasingly personal, as Gellar, the show's star, asserted that she wouldn't continue with the series on any network except the WB. Gellar retracted those comments a day later.

For all the perceived wrongdoing inflicted on his show, Whedon, it should be said, has signed two multimillion-dollar development deals with Fox on the heels of the success of "Buffy." That success, a WB executive sought to remind him Sunday, came about largely because the WB put "Buffy" on the air in 1997 when no other network was interested in the series.

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