For UPN, the check’s in the male

Testosterone powers net despite setbacks

Would somebody please give poor UPN a break?

The netlet started out six years ago as the favorite in its battle against rival WB, thanks to “Star Trek: Voyager” and the smart urban comedy of “Moesha.” But internal bickering among its corporate parents, the loss of several key affils– and, oh yeah, shows like “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” and “Shasta McNasty” — sent UPN to the back of the pack. Far back.

Last year, things started turning around. The acquisition of “WWF Smackdown!” transformed UPN into a ratings powerhouse on Thursdays, put the net back ahead of the WB in the ratings and gave it a much-needed identity as the male-friendly grappler web.

But this summer, corporate intrigue once again smacked UPN back down to earth. News Corp.’s purchase of Chris-Craft, the company that owns UPN’s affils in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, has literally called into question the entire fate of the netlet. As of this writing it’s expected UPN will last through the season, but anything beyond that is up in the air.

In the meantime, UPN execs are moving ahead with plans to launch a new sked that builds on last season’s successes by adding ABC import “The Hughleys” and three new series: An urban comedy on Monday (the “Living Single” -meets- “Sex and the City” hybrid “Girlfriends”) and two testosterone-pumped actioners (“Freedom” and “Level Nine”) on Fridays.

“Girlfriends” looks to be a perfect fit in UPN’s Monday comedy block. It should be helped by 9 p.m. lead-in “The Hughleys,” which will be a monster hit for UPN if it can attract even half its ABC audience.

On Tuesday, UPN believes its has nowhere to go but up with a weekly movie franchise. The night has traditionally been a disaster for the net.

Wednesdays might get a boost as Trekkies tune in for the final season of “Voyager,” while “Smackdown!” should continue to layeth down the ratings pain on Thursdays.

The new pair of programs on Friday, however, may be the most important to UPN since they represent the net’s attempt to transfer the Thursday “Smackdown!” audience to another night.

While the martial arts- filled “Freedom” has a solid pedigree (it’s from helmer Joel Silver), cybercrime hour “Level Nine” is generating strong response from the sci-fi community. Indeed, a recent audience study revealed that while the show ranks dead last in viewer awareness, those who know about the show are overwhelmingly likely to watch its premiere.

TN Media analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner says the move makes sense but is far from a sure thing.

“It’s going to be tight,” she says. “They have tough competition (for young men) from Fox,” which is programming two male-friendly hours of its own on Friday nights.

UPN topper Dean Valentine admits debuting two new hours on what’s historically been one of the web’s weakest nights is a “dangerous risk.”

“But if it works, the upside is enormous.”

Enormous enough, Valentine no doubt hopes, to convince Mel Karmazin and Sumner Redstone to keep UPN alive.

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