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.
Viacom’s “hail Mary” pass to try to save the ailing network came in 2001, when UPN agreed to pay about $50 million a season for the rights to “Buffy,” $10 million more than the WB had offered to keep the show.
Then, in 2002, UPN got something it never had: a charismatic leader who hated more than anything to lose. Leslie Moonves, who had engineered the successful turnaround of CBS, was asked by Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone to fix UPN.
Moonves took the challenge seriously, cutting costs by consolidating some of UPN’s operations with those of CBS, including marketing, research and publicity. He recruited a veteran programming executive from the Lifetime cable channel, and then encouraged top producers and other Hollywood talent, who had long turned up their noses at the “Smackdown!” network, to change course and bring their business there.
“Finally, UPN had some direction,” Sternberg said.
“Buffy” didn’t sustain the high ratings on UPN that it had enjoyed on the WB. Still, its arrival marked a turning point.
“That show represented what this network could be,” said UPN President Dawn Ostroff, the former Lifetime executive whom Moonves tapped to run the network in 2002. (Ostroff will become entertainment president at the new CW). “It signified where we could get to, and the kind of audience that we could attract: young, female and cutting edge.”
If that sounds familiar, it was. That same demographic formed the WB’s core audience.
The move of “Buffy” to UPN wasn’t all bad for the WB, which was nearing profitability. No longer having to pay the high license fees for “Buffy” helped it achieve its financial goals. Not only that, the WB replaced “Buffy” with “Gilmore Girls,” which is now one of the network’s most successful shows.
But, if nothing else, “Buffy” kept UPN alive long enough for Moonves to take the reins. And once he did, the race was truly on.
It didn’t help that the WB has failed to launch a big hit in the last three years, industry veterans said, and suffered through falling ratings.
The WB and UPN weren’t just battling each other, of course. With each passing year, the media landscape was becoming more and more fragmented.
There are more than 200 television channels, including several successful cable outlets, such as MTV and ESPN, that have tapped lucrative niche audiences, as well as other entertainment options such as video games, DVDs and the Internet.
Television and advertising executives say that, in the end, two networks vying for the same audience just didn’t work.
There weren’t enough popular shows to attract the number of eyeballs needed to lure advertisers willing to pay hefty ad rates.
During their 11 years, UPN lost more than $1 billion and the WB lost about $700 million.
Last week, Moonves confidently predicted that the CW would be profitable in its first year. The companies plan to pick their most popular shows to form a more mighty prime-time lineup. The strategy is to launch with 30 hours of programming a week, including 13 hours in prime time to cover six nights a week.
Will the CW be able to tackle and solve the problems that doomed its two network forebears?
Some analysts are skeptical.
“The most significant risk is that the two organizations encounter problems integrating their management, sales and creative staffs or that CBS and Time Warner are unable to agree on future strategic decisions for the CW,” Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen wrote last week in a research report.
CBS’ Tellem, who will serve on the board overseeing the CW, said such risks were minimal because the executives in charge had known one another for nearly two decades.
Her relationship with Rosenblum goes back to 1986, when they joined Moonves at Lorimar Television, which later became part of Warner Bros. Television.
Tellem said executives went into the deal with their eyes open.
The agreements structuring the new network call for binding arbitration if disputes arise. Shows developed at either Warner Bros. or CBS would become a co-production, with the two companies sharing the costs and the profit.
“We are very clear on what our objectives are,” Tellem said. “We were trying to be very honest and build into the deal provisions that support the goals of the network.”
They know they’ve got their work cut out for them, particularly when it comes to shaping the new network’s identity.
Some executives at rival companies are already referring to the CW by the name Moonves jokingly said he had rejected: the WC.
In some ways, the story of the new network echoes a plot line that will be familiar to fans of one of the WB’s earliest success stories: “Sister, Sister,” the show about the teenage twins who were separated and then reunited.
Could the CW be the network equivalent of “Sister, Sister”?
It could do worse: That show lasted five seasons.