NEW YORK — The WB network will kick off a fourth night of primetime programming by January with two new dramas that bring the netlet’s total programming tally to nine hours a week.

Weblet execs confirmed the schedule (Daily Variety, May 12) at an advertiser presentation Tuesday at the Sheraton New York hotel, and followed it with the network’s first-ever Gotham affiliate meeting.

At the advertiser breakfast, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin voiced a strong vote of confidence for the weblet, an apparent response to published comments from vice-chairman Ted Turner, who suggested he’d rather shut it down.

Although it continues to lose at least $100 million a year, “the WB represents probably our primary content creation vehicle,” Levin said, and a key distribution outlet for Warner Bros. TV shows. “With the stability of management, the constancy of purpose and vision, our timing couldn’t be better.

“This is a family-friendly network with the zippiest, youngest demos, when the social perspective in this country seems to be calling out for it.”

“The big networks are jealous of each other, and they’re all fighting over the same 18-to-49 viewers,” said WB head Jamie Kellner, suggesting this leaves plenty of room for the netlet’s all-family strategy.

The WB will continue to focus on younger demos with young-skewing and ethnic sitcoms, he said, but in adding new nights, “we will again broaden our audience with a more balanced schedule.”

The WB’s Monday and Wednesday lineups will remain intact, preserving midseason performers “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Smart Guy.” But the WB will add two sitcoms at 9 on Sunday — “The Tom Show” with Tom Arnold as a failed TV producer and single dad, and “Ocean Drive,” starring Carol Leifer, a writer for “Seinfeld” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” as a single woman in Miami Beach coping with her parents.

Both are more adult comedies, marking the attempt to expand to older demos, while Tuesday’s action drama, “Three,” also aims older. “Dawson’s Creek,” the WB’s fourth new show, is a coming-of-age teen drama in the vein of Fox’s “Party of Five” that may also appeal to young-adult audiences. Both have received 13-episode orders with options for two to five additional episodes.

Ironically, none of the WB’s newcomers is produced by Warner Bros. But with the bigger networks producing more of their own primetime schedules, the WB remains a valuable outlet for the studio down the line.

Ad buyers applauded what they called a focused programming philosophy that, despite lower ratings, has the potential to build over time.

“When they first started out it didn’t look like they were going in any direction,” said Steve Sternberg, senior partner at BJK&E Media Group. But by solidifying an identity with the 12-to-24 demo and then expanding the base as the WB adds new nights, “they’re trying to do exactly what Fox did, and the audience might be there for them. All they need is that breakout hit.”

Some think the WB has the makings of it with “Dawson’s Creek,” one of two Tuesday shows to begin in mid-December or early January. The delay in launching the new night results from WB’s move to expand its kids lineup to weekday afternoons in September, adding another 10 hours to the schedule.

The midseason debut also allows the network to promote the new pair of shows without the clutter of other networks’ fall-season launches. Rival UPN also is expected to add a fourth night, probably Thursdays, in January.

Among challenges, the WB’s Wednesday-night comedy block could be hurt from 8 to 9 by NBC’s new family sitcoms in that hour — “The Tony Danza Show” and “Built to Last,” an ethnic comedy from Warner Bros. On the flip side, WB has a clearer field with Sunday sitcoms from 9 to 10 against movies and “The X-Files,” and “Buffy” could benefit from NBC’s decision to drop its Monday movie.

The WB also has three midseason backups: “Us and Them,” from Castle Rock, about an interfaith married couple and their mismatched families; “Kelly Kelly,” from Paramount, with Shelley Long and Robert Hays as a romance novelist and a firefighter with four of his kids; and Invasion America, from Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Television Animation, a sci-fi series about a teenage boy who’s half-alien.

Leaving the sked are “Brotherly Love,” “Life With Roger” and “Savannah,” the latter of which was the talk of last season’s upfront presentation after a strong midseason debut. Garth Ancier, president of the WB’s entertainment division, said “Savannah” had “a rough season creatively,” but attributed its cancellation to the fact that serial dramas don’t repeat well, making the investment too expensive.

The complete WB schedule is as follows:

Monday — 8 p.m.: 7th Heaven; 9 p.m.: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Tuesday (mid-December or early January) — 8 p.m.: Dawson’s Creek (Columbia TriStar Television); 9 p.m.: Three (Paramount Television/MTV Prods.).

Wednesday — 8 p.m.: Sister, Sister; 8:30: Smart Guy; 9: The Jamie Foxx Show; 9:30: The Wayans Bros.

Sunday — 7 p.m.: The Parent ‘Hood; 7:30: Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher; 8 p.m.: The Steve Harvey Show; 8:30 p.m.: Unhappily Ever After; 9 p.m.: The Tom Show (Universal Television); 9:30 p.m.: Ocean Drive (Brillstein-Grey).

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