The Fifth Networks’ Second Coming

The WB wants to provide family fare and UPN still lives on the urban edge, but both are chasing after the Fox

Upfronts for young networks are like cheerleading tryouts. Rumination, best foot forward, claws ready in case the blonde on the left drops her pom-pom. Nowhere was that more evident than in the sparring between UPN and The WB. With the 1997-98 season unveiled, the two networks-both born in 1995-have made it through adolescence and would have ad buyers believe that they’ve “found themselves.” UPN chose to follow the edgy path cleared by Fox; the WB is now casting itself as the family alternative.

As their new fall lineups indicate, the trappings of network infancy have begun to fall away from both networks. Episodes of UPN’s indecipherable Platypus Man and WB’s Kirk have thankfully faded from memory. And like their predecessor Fox, the two fledgling networks launched with heavy doses of black programming, mostly vehicles for African American stand-up comics, to secure viewership with larger urban affiliates.

“It was smart of them to do that initially,” says Steve Sternberg, a senior partner with BJK&E Media. “Shows that appeal to black viewers also get young viewers. Now that kids don’t look to the traditional networks first, it’s easier to get them.”

Kids-with their parents-are exactly whom The WB sees as its target audience, and the network’s programming strategy this year is geared to attract them. The Time Warner property needs a boost following a lackluster 1996. Last year, the network bottomed out both in terms of ratings and revenue. In the coveted 18-49 category, The WB was dead last among the networks, earning only a 2.4 share.

And support from the parent company has been spotty at best. After pouring $165 million into the two-and-a-half-year-old venture, Ted Turner has hinted at an early death for the Frog. “I would be surprised if they threw in the towel,” says Steve Grubbs, executive vice president, director of national TV buying at BBDO. “After all, it took Fox five years to turn a profit.” In fact, a promising new lineup seems to have convinced most media buyers that The WB is not going anywhere-but up.

The WB’s new family brand initiative should give it an advantage in a niche where not enough family programming exists, say WB execs. “I think they have a promising lineup and are moving in the right direction,” says BJK&E’s Sternberg. “In the past year or two they’ve been heavily kids and teen viewers. As you expand beyond two or three nights, you can’t rely just on that market.”

The WB’s additions include Three, a drama about a con artist and a computer hacker; The Tom Show, with Roseanne’s ex playing a single dad; Ocean Drive, starring a comedian and her daily foibles; and Dawson’s Creek, which has been called The WB’s potential Party of Five, the critically acclaimed Fox drama.

Jamie Kellner, WB’s ceo, put the familial at the center of his upfront presentation and continues to use it as the network’s rallying cry. “We’re catering to the American family audience,” says Kellner. “But that doesn’t mean ‘family values.’ Mom and Dad, who are generally and obviously in their 30s and 40s and want their kids to watch with them.” As testament to wholesome fun, the Dubba Dubba does have Sister, Sister and Smart Guy, which have consistently topped the network’s A-list. Though Nick Freno and The Parent ‘Hood draw consistently low numbers, Kellner still wants to stay on the kinship course. “We tried to do it with a balanced menu and move toward things like 7th Heaven-programs which have no sex, violence or language problems. But that is rarely available today. We’re not trying to duplicate the strategies of any of the other networks, especially Fox. We want to be a mainstream network,” Kellner says.

UPN, however, isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to its immediate competition. “The fact of the matter is,” says R. Kevin Tannehill, UPN’s executive vice president of network distribution, “you have two start-up networks, and we’re cleaning their clock.”

BBDO’s Grubbs, however, has higher hopes for the new additions to Michigan J. Frog’s fall lineup. “If you’re an advertiser looking for a younger audience, the WB is a very viable outlet, especially for the younger, 12-34 demographic,” says Grubbs. “I think the reception has been positive. They both have the same types of shows, yet The WB has gone out of its way to be a family channel. They have some family-oriented shows, and they have that frog that says ‘Good night! Time to go to bed!’ But the programming is as much youth appeal as it is all family.” Though the brand may not quite fit, Kellner is convinced that the dearth of so-called family shows on broadcast networks opens up a niche for his fledgling net. As for “them,” Kellner says, “I think it’s unfortunate that UPN spends time in front of national advertisers trying to push us down. It’s really a misguided strategy. After all, they’re getting into a far more crowded world than we are.”

Crowded or not, UPN believes The WB “has skewed very young-too young.” According to the Nielsen Television Index, the median age for UPN viewers is 33, for Fox, 35, and for The WB, 24. While WB goes family, UPN is wary of branding itself and instead has relied upon its superior distribution. “What we’re looking for is 18-34 foundation,” says Lucie Salhany, outgoing head of UPN. On the evolution of her network, she says: “It’s awfully similar to Fox, in terms of urban plus rural. It encompasses everyone. But there is much more competition out there than when they started up.”

The edge that UPN carries is its distribution strategy. The UPN can point to four station affiliates that have traded The WB for UPN since the end of last year. Paramount/United Chris-Craft’s TV affiliate ownership has made for a comfortable relationship. UPN can claim 166 stations with 92 percent coverage.

To its lineup, UPN adds Good News, a comedy about a young minister; Hitz, starring Andrew Dice Clay as a record-company boss; Head Over Heels, about Miami brothers who run a video dating service; and a sci-fi movie block with original made-for-television fare in a two-hour slot.

Mike Sullivan, incoming head of the network, has no problem surveying the crowded field. Sullivan is counting on Hitz, which comes from MTV productions, to balance out the addition of UPN’s dramas. “There’s a lot of music in it and really good, interesting casting. It’s also got a strong teen appeal,” says Sullivan. The lineup relies heavily on last year’s hits, which helped UPN finish in the 5th slot. “If you get too narrow,” he adds, “you’re potentially losing a lot of people.”

UPN’s standbys, such as Malcolm & Eddie, Moesha, and Star Trek: Voyager, should offset much of the risk that the net is taking with the newer shows, and picking up Clueless from ABC was a clever move. Even though Clueless did a 15 share on ABC, says Sternberg, “if it does 6 at UPN, that will be a great start.”

Steering clear of branding, keeping sharp comedy and venturing into sci-fi seem to be at the top of UPN’s list. Salhany sees no future in clinging to one concept. “They don’t even have an identity,” she says of The WB. “They’ve taken a word-‘family’-and built something around it which isn’t even that,” she says with a harrumph. “How can you talk about being a family channel when you have teenagers talking about masturbating to Katie Couric?” she asks, referring to the pilot of Dawson’s Creek, a show she says tweaks the boundaries of family programming.

“Each network wants to call itself the Fifth Network. They’ll both need a couple of years before they can even think about being in that league,” says Sternberg. In the end, he says: “Being called the Fifth Network probably means a lot more to them than it does to us.”

Posted by on June 2, 1997