Ratings rebound despite uncertain future

While the long-term future of UPN may still be in doubt, the struggling weblet can at least claim credit for one of the more astounding Nielsen rebounds in recent memory.

A year ago, the joint venture between Viacom and Chris-Craft was bleeding viewers at an alarming rate as it grappled to find its identity. Now, thanks to a whole lotta grappling on its airwaves Thursday nights, the netlet has turned around its fortunes.

Using as a springboard the instant-hit status of a two-hour weekly series featuring the superstars of the World Wrestling Federation, UPN has posted significant ratings increases this season, recently overtaking its weblet rival, the WB, in total viewers and adults 18-49, season to date.

Nobody’s dancing in the halls at UPN yet, but weblet topper Dean Valentine is at least allowing himself to be mildly upbeat.

“What we’ve done is we’ve laid the conditions for future growth,” he said in an interview with Daily Variety. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to be beating our chest (over passing the WB) yet. We’re simply turning around a sinking ship; we’re not in port yet.”

The ongoing and increasingly nasty divorce battle between Viacom and Chris-Craft also makes it impossible to get too excited over the ratings gains. Until it’s known whether Viacom and its soon-to-be partner CBS will take control of UPN, or whether Chris-Craft will gain full custody, an air of uncertainty hangs over anything connected to the weblet.

Primetime pulse

Still, with “WWF Smackdown!” producing staggering gains of 171% in households and 1,025% in male teens Thursday nights, and the spill-over effect lifting programming on other nights to loftier Nielsens, UPN’s primetime sked is looking alive just nine months after the close of a disastrous 1998-99 season.

This season, UPN is averaging 3.95 million viewers weekly and a 1.6 rating in adults 18-49, edging the WB (3.86 million, 1.5 in adults 18-49) in both categories. The results reflect UPN gains of 43% and 45%, respectively, and WB losses of 16% and 17% compared with year-ago figures.

It’s one of the few times in its five-year history that UPN’s Nielsen trend line is pointing up rather than down.

“We’ve compensated for the loss of distribution (from the defection of several Sinclair stations to the WB in 1998) so that we’re back to where we were two years ago,” said Valentine. “Plus, we now have a more diverse audience, a more desirable demographic and much better prospects for the future.”

More than anything, though, the success of “Smackdown!” has helped brand UPN as the netlet of choice for young males. It also confirmed to UPN brass that their shift in programming strategy last spring was the right move.

“The WWF has clearly played a critical role for us,” Valentine said. “It functions for us the way the NFL or another sports franchise functions (for a Big Four web): It’s a great way to feed audience into the rest of the schedule. … We have this great platform to tell people about our programming.”

After a foolhardy attempt last season to broaden from its base of young, urban men by reaching out to Middle America, UPN unveiled a schedule for this season that took full advantage of having young-male magnet “Smackdown!” on its team.

Gone were the likes of “Love Boat: The Next Wave” and “America’s Greatest Pets” and in its place were male-skewing shows such as “Shasta McNasty” and “The Strip.” Latter skein is dead, and “Shasta” is in limbo, but the net at least is speaking with a fairly consistent voice throughout the week.

While “WWF Smackdown!” is clearly the impetus for UPN’s momentum — the WB likes to point out that it defeats or is even with UPN in adults 18-34 on the other four nights the two weblets compete — the grappler net insists it’s not a one-trick pony.

“Even if you subtract the WWF, we’d still be up (10% to 15%) in the ratings,” said Valentine.

To wit:

  • The netlet’s male-oriented movie night, which was shifted from Thursday to Friday, has produced Friday night gains of 13% in households and an even more impressive 80% in men 18-34 vs. a year ago.

  • On Wednesday — the only night the netlet kept intact from last season — UPN is up 1% in households and 6% in men 18-34 with dramas “Seven Days” and “Star Trek: Voyager,” solid figures given typical year-to-year erosion for series.

  • UPN also smartly moved its block of more female-skewing urban comedies, anchored by vet “Moesha,” to Monday, where the netlet’s primary audience of young men is busy in the fall watching football on ABC or wrestling on cable’s USA and TNT. As a result, UPN is back to being the No. 2 net with African-American auds after falling to last place during the 1998-99 season.

Negative vibe

UPN detractors point out that the likes of wrestling and monster trucks — although they bring in plenty of hard-to-reach young males — don’t command the advertising rates that up-market Nielsens would for successful comedy or drama programming.

UPN execs, however, feel the net may ultimately be able to command a premium for the young males it’s been luring. Studios hyping pumped-up action pics this summer, for example, may find it hard to ignore the chance to hype their wannabe blockbusters in front of the large concentration of men 18-34 tuning in UPN on Thursdays, the night before big weekend releases.

Not surprisingly then, UPN is moving ahead with more macho fare.

On tap next week is a monster-truck special that, if successful, also could become a series. Also in development for next season: An animated skein from guy fave Howard Stern and a “Baywatch”-esque hour about female volleyball players who happen to be crimefighters as well.

As Valentine said at the Television Critics Assn. press tour last month: “If it has testosterone in it, we’ll air it.”

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