New Year Brings 2 New Networks : WB Television and United Paramount Prepare for Their Premieres This Month. But Can They Really Survive Against the Big Four?
Jamie Kellner, the CEO who in the 1980s helped build a ragged formation of small TV stations into a competitive fourth network for the Fox Broadcasting Co., sat back in his new office on the Warner Bros. lot last month watching a frog sing and dance with a top hat and cane.
“We had this frog tested,” said Kellner, who was asked by Warner Bros. last year to help the studio launch its own national TV network.
Michigan J. Frog, who appeared in only one 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon, was chosen as the WB Network’s glib green mascot. He’ll get more exposure this summer, in an all-new theatrical short being made by original creator Chuck Jones to screen with the studio’s “Batman Forever.”
Kellner hopes the frog will give him a leg up on his cross-town rival, the United Paramount Network. Both networks, backed by major entertainment companies looking for new ways to distribute their product, are elbowing their way into the crowded TV environment this month with the intent to become broadcast television’s “fifth network.”
With network viewing levels eroding at the rate of 4% a year, and the vast majority of TV stations throughout the country already affiliated with either ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, both aspiring networks face a herculean task. Their parent companies--Time Warner and Viacom--are loaded with debt. But both networks say they are prepared to spend years and tens of millions of dollars to get their efforts off the ground.
WB Network debuts Jan. 11 on KTLA-TV Channel 5 with four original sitcoms. Kellner tapped into much of the same talent he used early at Fox--the producers of “Married . . . With Children” and Shawn and Marlon Wayans, little brothers of “In Living Color” stars Keenen Ivory and Damon Wayans. WB Network will air only one night a week, Wednesday, for now.
United Paramount debuts Jan. 16 on KCOP-TV Channel 13 with the two-hour premiere of “Star Trek: Voyager.” United Paramount will air a mix of original dramas and sitcoms on Mondays and Tuesdays, with a weekend movie block. Both networks have long-term plans to expand to seven nights a week and add children’s programming and late-night.
But the first order of business is to get viewers. With the tidal wave of TV that’s being piped into American homes these days, viewers will likely have a hard time distinguishing WB Network or United Paramount from cable and syndicated programming.
“In the beginning, they will look to viewers like a bunch of syndicated shows, with Warner Bros. or Paramount tags,” said Joel Segal, executive vice president for the New York advertising agency, McCann-Erickson. “Viewers could easily pass right over them. They won’t recognize them as networks, per se.”
For that reason, each network has been working hard and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to create an identity that will help it stand out. WB Network and United Paramount are adapting Fox’s strategy early by going for a youthful audience--with target ages between 18 and 34--which advertisers pay a premium to reach.
United Paramount took out a three-dimensional ad in the Jan. 8 edition of Rolling Stone, encouraging readers to stare at the page to detect the hidden logo, which incorporates the letters UPN into a circle, a triangle and a square. For some time, United Paramount has been airing glossy TV commercials featuring a rock opera, playing up Paramount’s heritage in the TV business.
Meanwhile, WB Network is getting that frog out. “Four out of five men between the ages of 18 and 34 know this frog and one of his songs,” Kellner said of his animated impresario, those songs being “Hello My Baby” and “The Michigan Rag.” The first of a dozen “Roger Rabbit"-style network IDs featuring Michigan are now airing, and his likeness went up on the sides of hundreds of buses in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other major cities during the holidays.
Kellner’s primary mantra is “programming and promotion.” If WB Network can put on good shows and make a lot of noise to draw attention to them, Kellner believes it can survive. One thing he learned at the irreverent Fox was that brand names--such as the cool, contemporary image conjured up by MTV’s moniker--become self-perpetuating, attracting both viewers and advertising dollars.
“Whereas the other networks have this very serious voice from heaven in their promos--'You are watching CBS,’ and it sounds like the same voice on each network--we have this wild, crazy character to bring viewers in,” Kellner said.
If WB Network has the frog, United Paramount has “the franchise.” The “Star Trek” empire of movies, TV series, books and merchandising has generated $1 billion in revenue for Paramount. That’s why United Paramount chose “Voyager,” part of the most successful TV series franchise in television history, as the cornerstone of its venture.
“A show like ‘Voyager’ will have a high viewer interest level going in, and that’s clearly very important to our initial lineup. Television is a hit-driven business,” said Michael Sullivan, president of entertainment for United Paramount. The network’s target audience across the board is young men. “We’re targeting mostly males, because with the male demo, the female demo will often come along with it,” Sullivan said.
The two new networks are good news for producers in Hollywood because they create opportunity. “Paramount is targeting young men, who are being left out in the rain as far as other networks are concerned,” said Stephen Cannell, producer of such action shows as “The A-Team,” “Wiseguy” and “Hunter.”
Cannell produced what was probably Fox’s first hit in “21 Jump Street,” but he has had to take his act to syndication in recent years with such shows as “Renegade.” Now, he’s producing 16 episodes of “Marker” for United Paramount, a Hawaiian adventure series starring Richard Grieco.
Executive producer Tony Thomas is trying to make WB Network’s “Muscle,” a racy comedy set in a fitness center, the ‘90s equivalent of the controversial “Soap,” which he produced with his partner, Paul Witt.
“On the Warner Bros. network, they’re going to give it all the time necessary to get an audience,” Thomas said. “All they want from us is a quality show, which we intend to deliver. Jamie and I discussed this: ‘Married . . . With Children” had a 3 rating for the first year, and nobody blinked. They just kept making them. That’s what we’re going to keep doing. Eventually, people will come to the party if they find out it’s good.”
There have been taunts, both public and private, between executives at WB Network and United Paramount, each loaded to the gills with former Fox executives. But they won’t be directly competing for viewers in the early going because they are airing on different nights.
In addition, they are being helped by a favorable advertising climate--the best in years. WB Network has guaranteed advertisers a 3 rating, or 2.9 million TV homes, similar to what Fox delivered its first couple of years. WB Network concedes that in the early going, United Paramount should do much better with the highly anticipated “Voyager” as a lead-in to its shows. United Paramount reportedly anticipates a 7 average national rating.
The most serious competition will come from Fox, which already has a firm grip on America’s youth. “Both these guys are trying to outfox Fox, using our success in going for the young audience,” said Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting Co.
“Our original goals were to serve some viewers who didn’t seem like they were being adequately served by the three older networks at the time,” he said. “Now these guys are looking to come after an audience that is being pretty well taken care of at the moment.”
Indeed, halfway through the fall season, Fox ratings are up 7% over last year, while ABC, NBC and CBS are collectively down. Fox has grown so powerful that it was able to steal away a dozen TV stations affiliated to one of the Big Three networks last year, for a $500-million investment.
So why try a new network at all? When federal rulings began loosening, allowing broadcast networks to own programming, both Warner Bros. and Paramount rushed to form their own networks with TV station groups as a way to distribute their product. There was a general fear in the industry that with ABC, CBS and NBC able to produce their own programming, the studios could get pushed out of the game or be forced to make unfavorable deals to survive.
Traditionally, TV studios don’t see any significant returns on their network shows until they are later sold into syndication. Now, WB Network and United Paramount can share in the advertising revenue their programs generate.
All of United Paramount’s series, with the exception of Cannell’s “Marker,” are owned by Paramount. Three of WB Network’s four shows are produced, at least in part, by Warner Bros., the largest supplier of TV series in Hollywood. In the future, both networks expect to have more balance in their quest for quality programming.
In order to survive over the long haul, WB Network and Paramount both agree, they need more and stronger station affiliates. Because most markets have just three or four local channels, there simply weren’t enough stations to go around. So each network had to use a clever means to build a distribution network with reach into 80% or more of the country.
To beef up its coverage, United Paramount signed up TV stations already affiliated with other networks to broadcast its four hours of programming--at whatever hours were convenient to the stations, thereby weakening the national marketing and promotion ability of Paramount. About 12% of the network is composed of such secondary affiliates.
WB Network, meanwhile, is relying on Chicago’s cable superstation WGN to supplement its reach in 18% of the country. There are also small VHF stations suddenly springing up to accommodate both networks. Fox has always had to rely on weaker VHF stations to weave its national web. Kellner plans to carry that idea a step further with WB Network by signing up small local cable channels to carry his programming.
Whether both networks can ultimately be successful is anybody’s guess in the upcoming 500-channel universe.
“Theoretically, both networks can survive, but not as we know a network, not in the Fox mold,” observed Dick Kurlander, programming vice president for Petry Television, which consults a group of 115 TV stations. “You’re not going to find two networks with 95% penetration, without dual affiliations or cable penetration. It can’t happen. But if we change the definition of success, then I think both can survive.”