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UPN to ‘Star Trek’ Film: Help Beam Ratings Up

Times Staff Writer

The “Star Trek” franchise has long been a raft for the fledgling UPN network to Klingon to.

But ratings for its latest “Star Trek” spinoff, “Enterprise,” have fallen more than 60% since its debut last year, leaving executives at the Viacom Inc. unit to wonder whether the show is nearing its final TV frontier.

Hoping to re-energize the program, Viacom executives are looking to “Star Trek: Nemesis,” which opens in movie theaters today, to lure viewers to the small screen as well. Moviegoers at more than 100 Loews Cineplex theaters nationwide will see a 40-second trailer promoting the TV show. And fans can enter drawings on the network’s Web site and in Loews theater lobbies to win a guest role on the series.

“This is about getting viewers more aware of our show,” said Dawn Ostroff, UPN’s entertainment president.

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The marketing blitz fulfills a mandate handed down this year by Viacom’s president, Mel Karmazin, to make promoting the $4-billion “Star Trek” franchise a corporate priority. At the same time, UPN executives say they are making plans to broaden the network’s reach beyond its core crew of Trekkies.

As one executive put it, they can’t rely on the “Star Trek” franchise to be “the end-all, be-all,” that it has been in the past.

More than 13 million people last year tuned into the first episode of “Enterprise,” which unfolds in the pioneering days of deep space travel, a century before the 1960s space cowboy Capt. James T. Kirk was zipping around the universe.

On Wednesday, 4.7 million viewers were watching. Although most TV programs experience audience drop-offs after season premieres, UPN executives and the show’s producers were depending on “Enterprise” to exhibit more of that storied “Star Trek” staying power.

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Three previous incarnations produced by Paramount Television -- “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (1993-1999) and “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001), the show that launched the UPN network -- all lasted seven seasons.

UPN executives, however, won’t say how many seasons they expect “Enterprise” to survive.

“It’s still one of UPN’s highest-rated shows, although these days that’s not saying too much,” said Steve Sternberg, a TV analyst with Magna Global USA, an advertising buying firm.

UPN’s other signature shows also are sliding. Ratings for the network this season are down 18%.

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World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Smackdown” is pulling in nearly 2 million fewer viewers on Thursday nights than during the show’s peak three years ago. And onetime cult sensation “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which UPN wrested last year from its archrival, the WB network, by paying $2.3 million an episode, is losing the Tuesday night ratings wars. WB’s cheaper upstarts, “Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville,” are faring better.

Advertisers and analysts say 8-year-old UPN has never gained traction because it has no clear identity and a patchwork of programming.

Its successful Monday night lineup of comedies, including “Girlfriends” and “One on One,” has been a sunny spot in an otherwise bleak year. Still, most Monday night viewers don’t return to UPN later in the week.

The network canceled its heavily hyped new show “Haunted” after three episodes produced skeletal ratings. The network attempted to lure Monday viewers to Wednesday by airing a remake of “The Twilight Zone” after “Enterprise.” But instead of winning new viewers, UPN might have unintentionally hurt the “Star Trek” spinoff by pairing it with a show panned by critics and viewers.

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“There is some erosion in ratings, but our situation is far better than it was a year ago,” said Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, another Viacom unit, who has taken charge of UPN.

Moonves inherited the struggling network this year because Viacom was frustrated by continuing losses. The consolidation helped trim UPN’s deficit from $100 million last year to an estimated $40 million this year.

Advertisers are unfazed by the lower ratings for “Enterprise.” For pushing upscale products such as Lexus, Audi and Nintendo, the show is still a dependable source of the most desirable viewers: Tech-savvy men ages 18 to 54.

Executive producer Rick Berman, who also produced the “Star Trek Nemesis” movie, defended “Enterprise,” despite the lower ratings.

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“Creatively,” he said, “ ‘Enterprise’ is as good or even better than ever.”

Others disagree, however, and the topic has generated endless discussion on Internet message boards and in chat rooms.

Some fans love the show, spending hours discussing plot lines, the theme song, the crew members’ uniforms and the realism of the technology aboard the Enterprise.

But many have written the show off, saying it has failed to capture the imagination of “Star Trek” loyalists.

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“It’s not breaking new ground,” said Steve Krutzler, editor of TrekWeb.com, a site devoted to “Star Trek.” “The show doesn’t seem very inspired.”

TV analyst Larry D. Gerbrandt, chief content officer for Kagan World Media, a research firm in Carmel, said the series is no longer on the cutting edge.

“They’ve sort of lost the touchstones in a way,” Gerbrandt said. “Capt. Kirk and Picard were there to save the universe every other episode. These were stories of universal proportions. But it seems like over the last couple of years the stories have gotten smaller and less important.

“Where’s trans-warp drive when you really need it?”

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