Tribune Co., in a boost of confidence to the WB netlet, has upped its ownership stake in the fledgling web to 21.9%

Time Warner and Tribune have been partners in the WB since its launch more than two years ago. In August, Tribune exercised the first of its three options in the WB and acquired 12.5% ownership. This time around, Tribune is spending $21 million to up its stake. The broadcaster’s next option is in 1998 and, if exercised, will take Tribune’s ownership to 25%.

“The WB, in a very short time, has created firstrun, original programming that has performed well on our stations,” said Tribune Broadcasting exec VP Dennis FitzSimons, adding that “as ratings grow, there could be an opportunity for us to expand our revenues and margins.”

So far, it is estimated that Tribune has spent just over $50 million on the WB, including the company’s investments as well startup costs and losses in the netlet.

WB chief executive Jamie Kellner said Tribune’s latest investment proves the netlet is “on the right track.”

From a corporate standpoint, Tribune’s investment is good timing. Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner had recently reportedly questioned the WB’s startup losses and the long-term value of the service.

However, Time Warner sources said Turner has privately been backtracking from the impression he left in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this week.

Warner Bros. chairman and co-CEO Bob Daly said Time Warner, because of its heavy debt load, is “reviewing everything.” While the WB is not looking to turn a profit until the year 2000, Daly reiterated the media giant’s support for the netlet.

“The success of the WB is extremely important on several different levels,” Daly said, citing the fact that as the other networks look to produce more of their programming inhouse, Warner Bros. needs to ensure an outlet for its product.

“The WB,” Daly added, “plays a crucial role in the production, distribution and exploitation chain for both our primetime and children’s programming, feeding all of our businesses from broadcast syndication to cable to retail stores to licensing and merchandising to theme parks.”

Daly and Kellner pointed to the recent syndication sales of WB sitcoms “The Parent ‘Hood” and “The Wayans Bros.” by Time Warner syndication arm Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution as examples of the WB’s value. Tribune acquired both shows for its owned-station group.

Daly and Kellner acknowledged that the WB still needs to greatly improve its distribution. On the broadcast front, Kellner has been working with group owners to acquire or create outlets in markets where there is no current station. Also, the WB is planning to launch its cable service WeB in fall 1998 to reach areas where the netlet has no chance of landing a broadcast station. Warner Bros.’ syndication arm is also planning to clear some key off-network properties, including “Friends” and “ER,” on the WeB in markets 100 and beyond.

Tribune is one of the country’s largest broadcasters. It just closed its acquisition of Renaissance Communications and now owns 16 TV stations, including outlets in New York (WPIX), Los Angeles (KTLA) and Chicago (WGN) as well as several other top markets.

On the programming front, the WB has one of the hotter midseason shows in the drama “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

The WB also unveiled its programming development for the 1997-98 season, which includes previously reported comedies starring Tom Arnold and Shelley Long. Other comedies include “Us & Them” from Castle Rock Entertainment and starring Cynthia Geary (“Northern Exposure”). It’s about a married couple whose Southern and New York in-laws clash. The WB is also developing a show starring prolific writer Carol Leifer (“Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) as a single businesswoman.

WB dramas include “Dawson’s Creek,” a “Twilight Zone” type coming-of-age drama from Columbia TriStar Television. Also in the works is “Seattle Emergency,” about a nightshift of police officers, firefighters and paramedics, and “Three,” an action-adventure drama.

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