Show's network shift boosts all players

A little more than a year after “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” pulled up stakes and jumped from the WB to UPN, the watershed shifts in the industry many pundits predicted have not yet come to pass.

Studios are still selling shows to networks with which they share no corporate affiliation. UPN didn’t go out of business due to “Buffy’s” huge pricetag, and the WB didn’t collapse without the show.

What’s more, WB charges that News Corp.-owned 20th Century Fox TV sold “Buffy” to UPN because News Corp. was planning to take an equity stake in UPN (or even buy the net flat out) haven’t been borne out. UPN remains a wholly owned unit of Viacom — and few industry insiders expect that to change during “Buffy’s” lifespan, if ever.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been serious ramifications — or that more aftershocks of the two-year, $100 million-plus deal won’t be felt in the season to come.

Thanks to “Buffy” and new hit “Enterprise,” UPN has finally started to shed its image as a loser network, even generating positive buzz in magazines geared toward young adults. The strong performance of both shows helped the netlet’s overall 2001-02 ratings jump 15% in total viewers, 13% in adults 18-49 and a whopping 19% in adults 18-34. It topped the WB in all three categories.

Over at the WB, despite a strong May sweeps that helped re-establish some momentum, the netlet ended the season flat in viewers and young adults, and fell 5% with viewers 18-34. It still outrated UPN in the WB’s key demo of viewers 12-34 and beat UPN four of five nights in adults 18-34.

Smart pairing

Frog’s losses weren’t due to declines on Tuesdays. The net smartly shifted “Gilmore Girls” into “Buffy’s” old Tuesday timeslot and paired it with frosh hit “Smallville” — a formula that resulted in double-digit Nielsen gains vs. the WB’s old “Buffy”-anchored Tuesday lineup.

But shifting nascent hit “Gilmore” — along with the resurrection of “Friends” and the continuing success of “CSI” — caused the Frog’s Thursday lineup to tank, with the net losing as many viewers Thursday as it gained Tuesday.

The deal hasn’t been all upside for UPN, however.

Netlet dramatically improved its 8 p.m. Tuesday ratings with “Buffy,” but the skein’s halo effect on the Nielsens has yet to appear. “Roswell”– the WB sci-fi expatriate UPN snagged for the post-”Buffy” slot — tanked. Other attempts to launch programs Tuesdays at 9 also failed, in part because of “Smallville’s” strength.

One of the key reasons UPN execs gave for buying “Buffy” was its ability to help the net create new programming phenoms. If the netlet can’t launch a new hit on the strength of “Buffy” this season — the first contender is the spooky mystery drama “Haunted” — the deal’s $2.3 million-per-episode pricetag will seem even more exorbitant.

‘Buffy’s’ value

And while “Buffy” has helped UPN make dramatic gains in ad revenue, the show’s per-episode pricetag is far higher than the amount of direct coin it pulls in. Industry insiders peg the deficit at around $1 million an episode.

Still, network profitability isn’t about one show.

Back when NBC paid $13 million per seg for “ER,” there were weeks when the net didn’t sell $13 million in ad revenue for the skein. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hugely valuable to the net.

CBS and UPN topper Leslie Moonves calls the “Buffy” pact — negotiated before he took command of the netlet — “a much smaller version of Fox’s first NFL deal.”

“Fox lost a fortune on that, but as a result, Fox became a major-league player (in network television),” Moonves said. “UPN became much more of a major-league player because of ‘Buffy.’ ”

Another industry insider believes the net impact of the deal for UPN “is all in the eye of the beholder.”

“They may have lost a lot of money on a per-episode basis,” the insider said. “But it helped create a sense that the network was more than just wrestling on Thursday and black sitcoms on Mondays. They gained a lot of creditability.”

For the Frog, losing “Buffy,” while painful psychologically, hasn’t mattered much to the net’s bottom line.

“They might have had slightly better ratings with ‘Buffy,’ but they still had a pretty decent year,” one exec said. And in addition to saving lots of coin by passing on “Buffy,” the Frog also avoided setting an expensive precedent that would have resulted in across-the-board license fee hikes for many of its other hit shows.

Advertisers certainly felt the net did alright this past season: They rewarded the WB with a record haul in the recently-completed upfront ad derby.

As for the deal’s impact on the creative community, the fallout has mostly been limited to those with direct links to either the Frog or 20th.

The WB, burned by 20th’s decision to move “Buffy,” stopped developing new shows with the studio. Several projects died as a result.

But both sides did their best to keep the lines of communication open. After all, 20th’s “Angel” still airs on the WB, and the studio produces the Frog’s biggest comedy hit, “Reba.”

At one point last spring, the WB even made overtures to 20th about coming on board as co-producers of one of the net’s new fall skeins. Nothing came of it, but it now seems likely 20th will again develop new projects for the WB.

Indeed, 20th and News Corp. certainly count as the deal’s biggest winners. Not only is “Buffy” a much more profitable show, but — save for the WB boycott — felt nary a pinch of negative reaction from other nets for moving one of its key shows to another network.

What’s more, shortly after the “Buffy” deal closed, a cluster of former Chris-Craft stations — now owned by Fox — inked new affiliation deals with UPN. So in addition to the $2.3 million license fee, News Corp. also gets the benefit of increased local ad revenue from the “Buffy”-boosted UPN affils it owns. (Evidence of a sweetheart deal, WB insiders charge.)

The next question in the “Buffy” saga is whether the skein will continue after 20th’s current deal with UPN expires next spring.

Geller’s plans

Series star Sarah Michelle Gellar has been publicly noncommittal about returning for the 2003-04 season, and the success of the feature “Scooby- Doo” may make her even more reluctant to stick with series television.

“Buffy” creator Joss Whedon has been planning for such a possibility, and might be inclined to continue even without Gellar. If so, 20th and UPN would both have to agree on a suitable license fee for a Gellar-less “Buffy.”

For now, however, there seems to be a feeling that last year’s landmark deal to move “Buffy” ended up giving all sides something to be happy about– a hard fact for some to folks to get their hands around in a town that’s obsessed with labeling victors and vanquished.

“In many ways, you could call it an across-the-board win,” said one exec.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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