UPN, WB on varied paths

As Time Warner’s WB Network proceeds with its plans for cable distribution in markets ranked 100 and beyond, United Paramount Network is looking to increase its distribution by snagging those WB affils left by the wayside.

That will likely lead to more heated debates between the two netlets over which network is growing in which way. On Thursday, UPN announced that it had signed WB affiliate WUBI Savannah, Ga. (market 100), to a five-year affiliation deal. To UPN, it was a chance to gloat about the prospects that the WB’s “Savannah” won’t be seen in the market in which the show is set. But that’s not quite true, since viewers in that market will still be able to see the show via cable on the Tribune-owned superstation WGN (albeit not in pattern).

UPN also snagged WDRG Roanoke, Va. (which does not register in rep firm ratings books) and WBNU Charles-ton, S.C., the latter of which averaged a one rating and two share in the November sweeps.

Fallout expected

The WB was expecting fallout from small-market affiliates when it unveiled its plans to rely on cable distribution to fill the holes in its reach in smaller markets. WUBI, which had been on board with the WB since its launch two years ago, was offered a renewal with the netlet only until fall of 1998, which is about the time WB hopes to have its cable arm WeB running at full steam.

Whether the loss of some small-market stations will hurt the WB in the short term is debatable. WUBI in the No-vember 1996 sweeps averaged a zero rating and only a one share sign-on to sign-off, according to Nielsen (which seems to indicate that not many people in Savannah were watching “Savannah” anyway).

Good relationships needed

In the meantime, WB needs good relationships with cable operators right now to get WeB off the ground. Operators such as Tele-Communications Inc., headed by John Malone, helped get Fox off the ground with its cable service Fox Net, only to be dumped later by the web when it had broadcast affiliates to reach those so-called “white areas.” That being the case, cablers this time around want assurances that won’t happen again.

In return, WB expects good channel positions for its WeB service.

The WB has by no means stopped going after broadcasters. Last month, it signed primary affiliates in Milwaukee and Birmingham, Ala.

But that does not mean much to station operators such as WUBI CEO Jimmy Upchurch, who after two years backing the WB said that the service is “turning into a cable company that ultimately won’t support their affiliates.”

UPN hopes to capitalize on that sentiment in its efforts to grow its distribution, which right now reaches about 92%.

“From the beginning, UPN has been a broadcast network committed to developing and augmenting the value of its local affiliate partners,” said Kevin Tannehill, executive vice president of UPN’s distribution arm.

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