Wrestling with respectability

Net is poised to earn its keep as piece of Viacom's empire

UPN has never had as many executives in high places rooting for its success.

Long the butt of just about everyone’s jokes — including the netlet’s own staffers — UPN may have finally shaken some of that stigma now that it’s a part of Viacom’s CBS web.

The formerly young male-skewing web enters fall for the first time under the oversight of CBS chief executive officer Les Moonves, who took over the net in December, and his Eye staff, many of whom handle UPN matters as well.

“UPN has gained the support and the experience of the CBS group,” Moonves says. “Now the teams that put ‘Survivor,’ ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ and (‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’) in front of viewers and advertisers are helping UPN do the same with ‘Haunted’ and ‘Twilight Zone’ in the fall.

“The shape of this network is certainly forming,” he says. “We are setting the table. We are ready to head into the future and we are very proud of the steps we have taken.”

It’s also the first fall launch for UPN entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff, who was recruited by Moonves to join the weblet earlier this year. Ostroff’s immediate mandate includes shoring up the netlet’s viewership among adults 18-34.

While the show didn’t perform quite as strong as expected, UPN’s move to acquire “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” along with the debut of new “Star Trek” entry “Enterprise,” gave the net some solid building blocks with which to play. As a result, the net scored double-digit increases in adults 18-34, 18-49 and total viewers last season.

Of course, because the Moonves-Ostroff watch at UPN began in midseason last year, the network won’t look dramatically different this fall. Thursday remains wrestling night, while movies will continue Friday and Monday remains laffer-driven. Also, “Buffy” and “Enterprise” will continue to lead off Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively.

That only leaves room for simple tweaks Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“Our success last season really meant that we only had a few holes to fill,” says Ostroff, whose goal this fall includes finding ways to blend UPN’s mix of urban comedies, spooky dramas and wrestling.

“Right now UPN is a different kind of network than anyplace else,” Moonves says. “UPN had great programming on each separate night. It was almost a separate identity. What Dawn is trying to do is mold them together.”

As for UPN’s three new series, Ostroff and company are playing it safe Monday with frosh laffer “Half and Half,” from Yvette Lee Bowser, about estranged half-sisters who find themselves living with one another.

“Haunted,” a supernatural take on private investigators, follows “Buffy,” while UPN will take its biggest gamble on the third incarnation of spooky anthology series “The Twilight Zone,” which will air after “Enterprise.”

Anthologies haven’t worked well in primetime since, well, the original “Twilight Zone” on CBS in the early 1960s, but Moonves isn’t worried. He’d take a fraction of the viewership the second version of “Zone” attracted in the ’80s.

“We’ll take half those ratings of any of those anthologies that didn’t work on the broadcast networks in the ’80s and ’90s, and that will be a great number on UPN,” Moonves says. “We’re looking at a different environment. Our expectations are moderate, and I think they can be achieved at UPN.”

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