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Shows Await a Shakeout

Producers scramble to learn whether their programs will be on the CW as executives try to form an identity for the network.

January 25, 2006|Scott Collins and Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writers

"Smallville" executive producer Al Gough oversees one of the WB network's biggest hits, but he was as surprised as the rest of Hollywood by Tuesday's announcement that the WB and rival UPN would merge into a new network.

Even seasoned producers were left scrambling to learn whether their shows would be on the network -- called the CW -- when it debuts this fall.

"We're mentioned in the press release," Gough said optimistically, "so that's a good sign."

The larger uncertainty, though, is whether the CW will be able to forge a clear identity, given that both the WB and UPN lost millions of dollars in the last decade trying to find their niche.

Executives from CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., which will split ownership of the CW, promised a continued focus on viewers ages 18 to 34. They indicated that the network's initial lineup probably would include such current youth-skewing UPN series as "Everybody Hates Chris" and "America's Next Top Model," as well as such signature WB shows as "Smallville" and "Gilmore Girls."

UPN President Dawn Ostroff will take over the combined operation, and WB Entertainment President David Janollari is expected to step down.

TV historian and programming analyst Tim Brooks, a research executive for Lifetime Television, said that combining the best programming of UPN and the WB should make the CW a more viable network than either of its predecessors.

But, he cautioned, catering to the fickle tastes of young viewers is difficult.

"The youth audience is very restless and quick to move on to the next thing," he said. "The only TV entity that's been able to stay on top of that, and they do so marvelously, is MTV."

Nonetheless, some producers were optimistic.

"It reminds me of when [cable networks] Comedy Channel and Ha! got together and made Comedy Central," said "Everybody Hates Chris" executive producer Ali LeRoi. "Everyone benefited."

LeRoi said he had not heard Tuesday whether the coming-of-age comedy he developed with comic Chris Rock would be picked up, but he added that the show "did pretty well for UPN and I'd like to think that we would be a part of anything new that they're trying to do."

Other shows might not be so lucky.

The WB dramas "Everwood" and "Charmed" were among shows conspicuously absent from a news release touting the CW, as were the WB comedy "What I Like About You" and the UPN sitcoms "All of Us" and "Half and Half."

Producers for those series did not return calls.

Mike Tollin, whose Tollin/Robbins Productions helps make the WB youth soap "One Tree Hill," said he was not concerned that his show was left off the list.

"I'm not going to make much of that because we believe so strongly in the show," he said. " 'One Tree Hill' has an enormous appeal to the 12-to-24-year-old demographic."

UPN and the WB started in the mid-1990s, not long after courts scrapped rules prohibiting TV studios from owning networks on which their shows aired.

Executives hoped that the new branded channels would create outlets for programs produced by their sister studios -- Paramount for UPN and Warner Bros. Television for the WB.

(Tribune Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times, owns a stake in the WB; the company said Tuesday that it would carry CW programming on its stations but would not be an owner.)

But the corporate dreams gave way to some harsh realities.

The WB succeeded in the late 1990s with teen-oriented hits such as "Felicity" and "Dawson's Creek."

A more recent strategy to lure older viewers in their 20s and 30s led to such bombs as "Just Legal," a drama with Don Johnson that survived only three airings last fall.

UPN's identity has been even shakier. The network seemed desperate for attention early on, spawning some near-legendary disasters such as 1998's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," a goofy period sitcom about Abraham Lincoln.

A bid to grab young men with sci-fi shows such as "Star Trek: Enterprise" yielded early results but eventually fizzled out. And although young male viewers still show up for the wrestling matches on "Friday Night Smackdown!," they don't tend to return for UPN's other offerings.

Since CBS assumed control over the network in 2002, however, UPN has seen some success by aiming for ethnic women with comedies such as "Girlfriends" and the reality hit "America's Next Top Model."

"Both companies have sort of converged recently into going after 18-to-34-year-old women, and ... if you look at that programming, they mix very well together," CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves told reporters, adding by way of example that WB's "Gilmore Girls" could help draw viewers to UPN's long-struggling "Veronica Mars."

Noting that the WB and UPN had spent a decade battling for a finite audience, Moonves said "the programming meshes totally.... I don't think it's a culture shock for either one of these places."

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