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'Buffy' Fight May Have Slain Two Networks on the Edge

When the show shifted from the WB to UPN, it set in motion a fatal fight for young viewers.

January 29, 2006|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

When the obituary is written of the WB network, the cause of death should probably read: complications resulting from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Last week, when the money-losing WB and UPN networks announced that they were pulling the plug to form a single new broadcast network, many television veterans traced the roots of the decision back five years, when a fight over the fate of "Buffy" drove what would prove to be a fatal stake through the WB's heart.

The show, produced by 20th Century Fox Television, was a runaway hit with teenage girls. But in early 2001, the WB balked when Fox executives demanded $44 million to license a single season. That fall, the show shifted to UPN, and with it went the WB's identity as the go-to destination for young viewers.

Now, as CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc. develop the CW, their new jointly owned network, what killed the WB and UPN is a hot topic in the offices of TV executives all over town.

In the end, many agree, the WB's loss of "Buffy" -- which breathed new life into the struggling UPN -- set in motion a pitched battle for the coveted youth market that would eventually doom both networks.

"It came down to two very large and very well-funded media companies trying to take one seat at the table," said Warner Bros. Television Group President Bruce Rosenblum, who was put in charge of the WB network last year. "Rather than battling the network business, we were battling each other."

Rosenblum is particularly interested in what went wrong because it is now up to him and CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group President Nancy Tellem to make things right. The two will oversee the CW network, which is scheduled to launch in September.

CBS will control the CW's programming, marketing and research functions. Time Warner's former WB employees will run the CW's business operations. One company executive said about a third of the nearly 300 WB and UPN employees would lose their jobs in the consolidation. But Tellem and Rosenblum said no such decision had been made.

The cautionary tale of the little networks that couldn't begins in the early 1990s. That is when the relaxation of federal rules allowed broadcasters for the first time to own the content they aired.

This gave such longtime TV production juggernauts as Warner Bros. and Paramount the chance to get into the network game.

Ironically, the brass at both companies talked about working together to build a single network. Instead each company aligned with a separate, powerful independent TV station group -- Paramount with Chris-Craft Industries and Warner Bros. with Chicago-based Tribune Co. Both Chris-Craft and Tribune, which now publishes the Los Angeles Times, wanted their local stations -- not each other's -- to form the backbone of the new network.

Ultimately, that meant they formed two networks.

In Los Angeles, Tribune's KTLA Channel 5 became the WB affiliate and Chris-Craft's KCOP Channel 13 became the local UPN affiliate. (Fox later outbid Viacom Inc. to acquire the Chris-Craft stations, but still aired the UPN programming.)

Both networks scrambled to recruit affiliate TV stations throughout the country, and both launched within days of each other in January 1995.

The WB started with just two nights a week of prime-time programming, including such shows as "The Wayans Brothers" and "Muscle," a soap set in a Manhattan gym. "Sister, Sister," a sitcom about teenage twins separated at birth and reunited in their early teens, developed a loyal following.

"The WB was moving in the right direction for quite a while," said Richard Greenfield, media analyst for the brokerage firm, Pali Capital Inc.

Meanwhile, UPN -- United Paramount Network -- had three nights of programming. When it rolled out "Star Trek: Voyager" to eye-popping ratings, it took the early lead in head-to-head competition.

But UPN had trouble defining a clear identity. In 1998, it faltered when it unsuccessfully tried to expand to five nights a week.

In 1999, it had success with professional wrestling's "Smackdown!" but still was a network without a cohesive strategy.

As it grew, the WB consistently marketed itself as a youth-oriented network and gained traction with such signature dramas as "Dawson's Creek," "7th Heaven" and "Buffy."

"The WB had some very good years," said Steve Grubbs, chief executive of ad-buying firm PHD North America. "They always knew who they were."

Not so UPN.

"Every one or two years, they would come up with some new strategy," said Steve Sternberg, research director for the ad-buying giant Magna Global USA. "First they were going for men, then it was the middle of America, then it was African Americans. Then they finally got a hit with 'America's Next Top Model,' so then they decided to go after young women."

In 2000, then-Viacom President Mel Karmazin told investors that UPN's future was far from certain. It had become too much of a money pit.

"If we can't make it profitable, we don't need it," Karmazin had announced.

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