Netlets Vow To Be Tenacious

Reps from the WB and United Paramount Networks have feuded along the road to launching their new enterprises, but they agree on one thing: While the battle to establish a full-fledged network won’t be easy, the fight is going to go the distance.

Pleading for patience, relying heavily on analogies to the introduction of Fox Broadcasting, and insisting that it will take months before their success can be properly evaluated, the new studio-sponsored netlets each have made their primetime debut with what can at best be described as mixed results.

The two ventures – each headed by a former high-ranking Fox exec, Jamie Kellner (WB) and Lucie Salhany (UPN) – both say that’s to be expected. Meeting with press last week as part of the TV Critics Assn. tour, they each put their spin on the story, touting development deals with top producers and eventual expansion plans to new nights. It remains to be seen how many of those new-program concepts will end up replacing current shows.

Despite a bruising pre-launch turf war for affiliates, the two sides are now preaching peaceful co-existence, trying at least publicly to ignore past pronouncements that there may be room for a fifth, but not a sixth, regular primetime service and the fact that their expansion plans will ultimately put them on a collision course.

Yet signs of friction were there, even if they could be written off as tongue-in-cheek gestures. WB officials couldn’t resist showing up armed with “free popcorn” (a jab at UPN’s multimillion-dollar promotion) and UPN toppers talked about their advertiser-friendly lineup (a veiled barb at the raunchy nature of WB’s shows).

At least some UPN officials were understandably giddy over the low ratings and critical drubbing that greeted the WB’s premiere, if only because it lowered expectations for their new enterprise. As a result, UPN’s “Star Trek: Voyager” garnered the spotlight with stellar numbers in the Nielsen-metered markets, lagging slightly behind what the last spinoff, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” beamed up on a stronger lineup of stations in firstrun syndication.

Still, UPN’s Tuesday lineup, lacking that sort of franchise appeal, didn’t quite escape Nielsen orbit, and WB – while still falling well short of its rating guarantees – exhibited a minor uptick in its second week.

Kellner, who was there at the start of Fox Broadcasting, repeatedly turns to that experience; indeed, he mentioned Fox more than a dozen times alone in a half-hour question-and-answer session.

The process of launching a new network is “not an easy one,” he said, and “requires time and patience.”

Warner Bros., the network built on the back of a frog, is employing what Kellner called “a tortoise-type plan” – spending just $1.5 million, for example, on pre-launch promotion, with plans to escalate those levels in coming weeks.

“It’ll come down at the end of the day to the quality of the people and their innovation and talent,” he said.

Fox trot

Questions remain, however, whether the Fox analogy really holds true. With Fox now a firmly ensconced part of the broadcasting firmament, there are four services with which to contend – increasingly chasing younger demographics – rather than the monolithic three-way race and less competitive landscape that existed in 1986.

While Fox hooked up with the fourth-best station in each market, the new services are now stuck with the fifth or sixth.

In addition, new cable services, particularly regional sports channels, have continued to whittle away at younger male viewers, a big part of WB and UPN’s target audience.

At least for now, the new ventures claim to be benefiting from a robust advertising market that’s already brought smiles to the established services.

“We’re already selling the next quarter,” Salhany said, maintaining that the reception has been strong for the whole lineup, not just “Voyager.”

Indeed, one of the major factors behind the enthusiasm of the United/Chris-Craft stations to launch the new service was the desire to put the “network” label on their programs, after failing to reap what they felt should be their fair share of the ad pie with successful first-run shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

WB is hoping to add a second night in August (possibly Thursday), though one anticipates that could be delayed if the Wednesday comedy block continues to struggle.

UPN, for its part, says it’s too soon to contemplate a third night.

Though he diminished the importance of initial ratings, Kellner took other aspects of the launch in stride. Negative reviews were expected, he said, reminding critics that popular Fox shows like “Married… With Children” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” weren’t initially received well either.

Still, WB brass did feel compelled to defend themselves against charges that their lineup amounted largely to retreads.

Goal ‘not imitative’

“Our goal is not imitative programming,” said WB development chief Susanne Daniels, another member of the Fox alumni, responding to observations that the netlet included a show that virtually cloned “Married” (“Unhappily Ever After”), went back to the Wayans family well and churned out the “Soap”-inspired health-club serial “Muscle.”

Though both services were formed principally to ensure distribution outlets for Warner Bros, and Paramount shows – fearing increased in-house production by the established webs – both ventures are reaching out to other suppliers, with Disney, Sony and Universal all developing new programs.

UPN entertainment president Michael Sullivan, a onetime producer, even pledged minimal creative interference as a come-on to suppliers.

WB officials also say they’ll stick with shows they believe in as long as they’re happy with the quality – music to the ears of producers and studios who’ve had shows yanked after four or fewer network airings. The real test will be whether they stay with the current comedy four-stack if they continue to hover at current ratings levels.

Doubting Thomas

Producer Tony Thomas, for one, has his doubts. The producer of such shows as “The Golden Girls” and “Soap,” Thomas and partner Paul Witt – who have an overall relationship with Warner Bros. Inc. – are providing WB with “Muscle,” a raunchy serial set in a health club.

“In this business, you never believe that,” he said at the WB press conference. “You’re always standing over a trapdoor.”

Jim Benson contributed to this report.

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