Comedies highlight WB's risky fall shakeup

HOLLYWOOD — The Frog is about to jump into uncharted waters.

This fall, the WB Network will launch one of its most ambitious fall schedules ever, bowing eight new series and making major changes on every night of the week except Wednesday.

In another gamble, the net that built its rep on teen-appeal dramas such as “Felicity” and “Dawson’s Creek” will now go all out to make its auds laugh. Five new comedies are set to bow next fall; only one of the Frog’s frosh is a drama.

As if that weren’t enough change, longtime Tuesday anchor “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is moving across town to UPN; the less successful sci-fi drama “Roswell” is also headed to Smackdown Central.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, entertainment co-prexy Susanne Daniels has just decided to step down, while network founder Jamie Kellner has been bumped up the AOL Time Warner ladder to serve as head of Turner Broadcasting.

While it may be exploring some new ponds, the Frog remains the darling of Madison Avenue. In the just-completed upfront advertising market, the Frog hauled in roughly $475 million — about 12% more than the $425 million the net earned last year.

In addition, the WB managed to snag modest rate increases for ad time, even as almost every other network was forced to cut rates in the wake of the slumping ad market.

As for the exec shuffles of recent weeks, they’re significant on paper but aren’t likely to make much of a ripple in how things are run at the net.

Daniels’ co-prexy, Jordan Levin, has essentially been overseeing the day-to-day nuts and bolts of programming at the WB for much of the past year while his colleague was on maternity leave, insiders say. Flying solo now isn’t expected to pose much of a challenge.

What’s more, Daniels will likely stay within the AOL Time Warner fold in a new entrepreneurial role that will also allow her to remain part of the WB’s kitchen cabinet of advisers. Several other key WB execs will be promoted in the next few weeks; one or two new veeps may be brought in as well to help pick up the slack.

As for Kellner, though he now spends most of his time in Atlanta rather than Burbank, he’s still intimately involved in the big picture at the Frog. His successor at the WB, Jed Petrick, has just decided to move West — another boost to stability.

Kellner adviser and PR guru Brad Turell has also headed to Atlanta, but still consults regularly with new Frog spokesman Paul McGuire.

“The WB has a different kind of culture and structure than any other network I’ve been around,” Kellner said. “It’s like a family business, run by a group of people who sit around the table and talk everything out. It’s not the type of place where there’s a revolving door throwing people in and out.”

The people sitting around the table may now have different roles and titles, but Kellner said the senior execs running the show are essentially the same as they’ve been since he started the WB seven years ago.

“Nobody’s left the company. It’s the same management circle,” added Levin. “But there’s a natural growth that takes place. You risk losing people if opportunities aren’t created.”

Indeed, Daniels’ departure allows Levin to take over as the main man on programming. And Kellner’s elevation has allowed Petrick to step up as the go-to guy on all nonprogramming issues.

The family nature of the Frog even allows for prodigal sons to return. Original WB program topper Garth Ancier, who ankled the net for a gig at NBC, is now back in Kellner’s Frog family — an asset Kellner cites as an example of his net’s stability.

Challenges to slay

While the WB exec shuffles have gone smoothly, the net still faces the very real challenge of life after “Buffy” — and of launching a radically revamped sked.

No other network– including the Big Four, which program more hours per week — is making as many changes next fall as the WB.

On Fridays, for example, the Frog is rolling out three new comedies in a row following “Sabrina.” Tuesday night has also been completely made over.

“When you blow a tire with ‘Buffy’ leaving, that sort of forces you into more change than you’d normally make and more than you’d probably like to make,” one rival scheduler said.

While the loss of “Buffy” and the cancellation of weaker links “Roswell” and “Popular” made wholesale change necessary, WB execs say they’ve tried to maintain as much stability as possible.

Nightly anchors

Every night has at least one established series, from “The Steve Harvey Show” on Sundays to “Charmed” on Thursdays. And on nights where the Frog is making the most changes, like Friday, the WB’s previous poor perf means the net has nowhere to go but up.

“I don’t see next year’s schedule as risky,” Levin said. “There’s a risk in staying too stable (and) we have to set ourselves up for long-term growth.”

Indeed, the new WB sked has plenty of potential upside.

Net’s new Friday comedies are already drawing positive notice from Madison Avenue, and with a little luck — and a big marketing push — the WB may finally be able to grab back the teens and young families that once made ABC’s now-dead “TGIF” comedy block a hit.

On Thursdays, industry observers also think the WB is smart to pit low-cost reality programming opposite NBC’s “Friends” and CBS’ “Survivor.”

In addition, Frog execs hope that by scheduling “Popstars” and “ElimiDate Deluxe” from 8-9 p.m. Thursday, its viewers will get used to the notion of half-hour programming on the night. With “Friends” expected to end its run next spring, Levin wants to be in a position to put comedies on Thursday in fall 2002.

“We have to diversify the brand. The experience of watching the WB has to grow,” he said.

One way the net plans to do that is by building up ties with other parts of the AOL Time Warner empire — particularly the Turner nets now under Kellner’s control.

Cross-promotion

Eventually, Kellner hopes to have WB programs airing on cable and vice versa. In the immediate term, the synergy will be all about marketing.

Ads for TNT programming have already been airing on the WB, and later this summer, the Turner cablers and the AOL service will start hyping the Frog’s fall skeins.

“The Turner networks will definitely help us build awareness (of the new sked),” said WB marketing co- prexy Bob Bibb, who’s working with partner Lew Goldstein on plans to sell the Frog’s new shows.

Bibb and other WB execs actually think the upcoming season will be a cakewalk compared to what the net faced a year ago.

At that time, the Frog had come off a disappointing 1999-2000 season that saw the WB’s ratings drop for the first time in the net’s history. The loss of WGN as an outlet for WB programming contributed to across-the-board declines.

By strengthening current series, stabilizing distribution and adding the critically acclaimed “Gilmore Girls,” the Frog managed to get its groove back. Ratings growth resumed.

A Nielsen up arrow remains the goal at the WB, but there’s an even more important mandate: profitability.

With the current depressed ad marketplace, that becomes an even tougher task. Petrick still thinks it’s possible.

“I have real faith in the growth potential of our schedule,” he said.

Kellner said his big hope is that the coming season will see the WB finally launch a breakout comedy hit. The other challenges — the staff changes, the schedule shakeup, the loss of “Buffy”– won’t be too tough to handle, he said.

“This year is going to be much easier than last year,” he said.

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