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The Whims of War

Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

Born within days of each other, the WB and UPN networks have at times behaved like squabbling children--name-calling and roughhousing, trying to claim the best affiliated stations or largest share of the viewing pie.

Yet while each network will celebrate its fifth birthday in the middle of January, the milestone marks a more significant signpost for the television industry, a business shifted on its axis during the 1990s and whose prospects often appear as precarious as a toddler’s whims.

Much of the last decade’s tumult has stemmed from the elimination of federal rules that kept networks from distributing the programs they broadcast. Phasing out those guidelines cleared the way for a spate of mergers--such as Disney’s gloved hands grabbing up ABC--as well as the launch of studio-backed networks, following the trail blazed by Fox.

The WB has generally gotten the better of UPN in their skirmish, which has contributed to dilution of the existing talent pool and further splintering of the audience.

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As is often the case, however, understanding the future begins with a grasp of the past--in this case, an epic tale full of intrigue, feuding and “Star Trek,” starting with Paramount’s plans to become the “fourth network” nearly a quarter-century ago. In fact, long before Fox made its debut in 1986, young executives tried to achieve the same goal at Paramount, whose inability to realize that institutional dream allowed Fox and the WB to become the thriving enterprises they are today.

“The men leading the Paramount Television Service,” as a sales brochure for the venture said, became some of the most influential players in the entertainment industry. They included Barry Diller, then chairman of Paramount Pictures; Michael Eisner, the studio’s president; Richard Frank, its vice president, later president of the Walt Disney Studios; and Mel Harris, currently co-president and chief operating officer of Sony Pictures.

In 1977, Paramount announced that the service, dubbed PTVS, would launch in May 1978 with a single night of programming: an original movie and the series “Star Trek: Phase 2.” The studio projected a 13 rating, which today would easily surpass average tune-in for any of the major networks.

To Diller’s chagrin, Paramount pulled the plug six months before the venture was to make its debut. Studio chief Charles Bluhdorn worried PTVS would lose too much money, though the $40-million projection is less than 5% of the losses incurred by UPN thus far. The project progressed far enough that some sets built for the TV series were ultimately used in “Star Trek--The Motion Picture,” the 1979 feature that reunited the original “Trek” crew and inaugurated the theatrical film series.

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Diller, Eisner and their team kept trying to revive the network, only to be thwarted by the late Martin Davis, who replaced Bluhdorn in 1983.

“It took Martin Davis until ’93 to say, ‘Go do it,’ ” recalls Lucie Salhany, a former president of Paramount’s syndication division, the Fox network and UPN, who currently operates her own media consulting firm. “There was always a dream at Paramount to have another network, and it was handed down from generation to generation. In ’84, we tried to do it again.”

In fact, Paramount had “meeting after meeting,” as Salhany recalls, with Tribune Co., the TV station group owner (including KTLA locally) presently aligned with the WB. Frustrated, Diller left to become chairman of Fox, which spent $1.5 billion to acquire the six Metromedia TV stations, providing the foundation for the Fox network.

Fox also hoped to introduce its network with a new version of “Star Trek,” but Paramount chose to sell the property directly to TV stations, a decision that festered among Fox executives. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” took flight in first-run syndication in 1987 and immediately commanded stellar ratings.

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Paramount officials nevertheless remained frustrated that their syndicated programs such as “Star Trek” and “Entertainment Tonight” didn’t command the same advertising rates as network fare. As a result, they mounted another attempt to create a network in 1989, this time in partnership with MCA/Universal. That deal, too, fell through.

“By not doing it in ’89, they allowed WB to come in,” says one former Paramount executive.

Fox entrenched itself as a legitimate alternative to the major networks, even getting cozy with cable operators to secure more favorable channel positioning for its weaker station lineup, many of which were fuzzily relegated to channels 14 through 68 in the UHF portion of the broadcast spectrum. As the percentage of homes receiving cable increased, Fox became able to compete on a more even keel with ABC, CBS and NBC.

Still, the seismic event that ultimately prompted the creation of the WB and UPN occurred in April 1993, when the Federal Communications Commission phased out the financial interest and syndication rules, which had been initiated in 1970 to bar networks from the monopolistic power of owning lucrative rerun rights to the programs they broadcast.

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Although independent producers and studios lobbied hard to keep the rules in place, the government was swayed by the argument that the Big Three networks, as U.S. companies, should be unfettered to face global competition from studios such as MCA and Columbia Pictures, which had been acquired by Japanese corporations Matsushita and Sony, respectively.

Bob Daly, then-chairman of Warner Bros. and onetime head of CBS, spearheaded the studio fight and saw the danger of networks supplying their own programs, locking out the studios. “This is a disaster for independent producers,” he said at the time. “They will be whipsawed in their deals with networks. The networks will end up abusing their power.”

Daly was approached by Jamie Kellner, a former Fox president, to join him in establishing a new broadcasting entity. They soon agreed, and Kellner quickly began assembling fellow Fox alumni to launch the WB.

Paramount--which had made a fortune selling rerun rights to “Cheers” and other prime-time hits--came to a similar conclusion about the value of controlling its own programming destiny by creating a new channel, which, thanks to its partnership with Chris-Craft Industries’ United Television, was dubbed the United Paramount Network.

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“It became what I thought was a strategic necessity,” notes Paramount Television Group Chairman Kerry McCluggage.

Both networks were announced near the end of 1993, beginning a mad scramble to sign stations to carry their programming. At first, Paramount appeared to have the upper hand. The studio not only owned a group of TV stations but also had a signature program--"Star Trek: Voyager"--to anchor its push.

The WB, by contrast, stressed its programming and marketing strategy--creating a youth-oriented alternative led by animated mascot Michigan J. Frog that would cater to teens, children and young families who increasingly appeared to be disenfranchised at the elder networks.

The relationship between the WB and UPN was hostile from the start, as they vied to woo affiliates--especially in smaller markets without two viable independent stations. Kellner added to the friction by saying both could not survive. Salhany responded by attending an event wearing a pin of the WB’s frog with a stake through his heart.

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“I said, ‘As long as there’s a TV station in a market, there’s room for another network,’ and I always believed that,” Salhany states.

The WB deviated from its family-oriented image with dramas such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and later “Dawson’s Creek,” but the network established itself as the primary destination for teenagers and especially girls--carving out a profitable niche that tapped into Hollywood’s obsession with fresh-faced youth.

UPN, by contrast, experienced not only management turmoil but also inconsistency in its approach. After some success with action shows and comedies featuring African American casts--a strategy Fox once used, countering the Big Three with “Martin” and “Living Single"--the network changed chief executives and its programming course, deciding to take on the broadcast networks.

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With the United Parcel Service strike making headlines at the time, “UPN for UPS” became the network’s rallying cry under Salhany’s replacement, Dean Valentine, suggesting there was an appetite for programs aimed at blue-collar workers who enjoyed “Home Improvement” or “Roseanne” and weren’t getting such down-to-earth fare on the major networks.

The strategy failed, and UPN has since returned to the principal pursuit of young men, with the wrestling show “WWF Smackdown!” leading that charge.

As one veteran network executive put it, “Paramount clearly had the advantage initially with the station lineup, and they blew it. . . . WB had a vision and really followed it through.”

Valentine calls early friction between the networks “silly,” saying the simultaneous launch was “an accident of history” that fostered animosity between them. He insists there is ample room for both to “mid-cast"--that is, seek a wider audience than cable channels but a less expansive one than the major networks.

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Viacom nevertheless chose this year to forge a proposed merger with CBS, casting shadows over UPN’s fate. While Viacom officials have lobbied the government to let them operate both networks, they have also indicated they will do what’s necessary to ensure the merger is completed, which could require shedding all or part of its half-ownership stake in UPN.

Whatever happens, the new networks have already had a profound effect on the TV business. Most obviously, they serve as additional and welcome venues for writers, actors and their representatives.

“Having six networks to deal with instead of four is very positive for everybody,” notes Lee Gabler, co-chairman of Creative Artists Agency and head of its TV department.

On the downside, the supply of recognized talent has been stretched thin, resulting in young writers being plucked off shows--some say prematurely--to create series. That crush rose to near-absurd levels a few years ago when the number of sitcoms on the six networks ballooned to more than 60.

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Allan Burns, who produced such acclaimed series as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda” and “Lou Grant,” suggests the elevation of producers without having them serve the necessary apprenticeships has exacted a toll on the quality of programs.

“Half these people have never been in a cutting room or a casting session or even run a production meeting,” he says. “There’s no place for writers to train, and too many people running shows who shouldn’t be.”

Still, while executives talk about the need to find hot young talent, Burns suggests calling upon the older pros shut out by rampant ageism within the TV industry. “I think of all the comedy writers I know who can’t get work because they’re older,” he says. “That’s the way to beef up the talent pool: Start using people over 40.”

As for TV viewers, industry officials argue that the proliferation of channels and segmentation of the marketplace have benefited them.

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“If you could get somebody to go back in time to 1975, the variety and quality of programming today so far surpasses what was available then,” notes Sony’s Harris, who oversees worldwide TV operations.

Consider a series such as “Moesha,” which CBS developed and decided not to air. The show found a long-term home on UPN, as did “Clueless” after being canceled by ABC. “Buffy,” now a signature show for the WB, was another orphan.

” 1/8Series creator 3/8 Joss Whedon walked around town with ‘Buffy,’ and none of the big networks would give him a chance,” Kellner points out.

Although they continue to be measured against each other, officials at UPN and the WB say they really don’t compete directly anymore, with the UPN courting young men while the WB principally plays to girls and young women.

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“We’re in different formats,” Kellner says, returning to a favorite analogy that TV is becoming like radio, with stations designed for narrow audience segments. Kellner--who says the WB will be profitable by the 2000-2001 TV season--maintains such targeted services will thrive in the Internet age while less focused enterprises suffer.

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Clearly, the major networks have come to realize it’s difficult to be all things to all people in a 200-channel world. When there were three of them, or even four, programmers could still counter-program one another in a given time slot. With six networks offering similar-looking comedies and dramas, not to mention cable, the old rules don’t always apply.

“There used to be safe havens,” former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, now an independent producer, says almost wistfully. “You could say, ‘This is a comedy time period.’ Show me those havens today. Show me those places where you are a clear alternative.”

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The new networks have also heightened tension about how business will be conducted going forward. With networks such as ABC and Fox seeking corporate “synergy” wherever possible, fears regarding companies playing favorites toward programs they produce and broadcast have created a system of uneasy alliances and suspicion.

“We’re still going down that learning curve as an industry--about vertical integration, and how you operate in an environment where your customers are also your competitors,” McCluggage concedes.

For all their past animosity, the WB and UPN do strike a chord of unanimity in appraising what lies ahead, maintaining that thanks to technology and new means of delivering programs, the elder broadcasters can no longer rely on the power of their distribution systems alone to maintain their supremacy. “Eventually, it comes to down to programming,” says Kellner.

“The value of incumbency is eroding every day,” adds Valentine. “It used to be the real value was in distribution. Increasingly, the values are shifting toward content. That’s an epochal shift, and that shift is ultimately good for the viewer.”

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Even so, UPN would no doubt find itself more comfortably situated had Paramount realized a dream and boldly gone into the network business a few decades before.


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