UPN upbeat on fall lineup

Net negotiating to reup affil deal with Fox

UPN is on track to seal a new affiliation agreement with its Fox-owned outlets, chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves said Tuesday.

The netlet’s current pact with key affils in New York and Los Angeles expires in August 2004, and talks to renew the relationship have been ongoing between UPN and Fox for several months.

Moonves said he expects to finalize a renewal with the Fox Television stations by next spring, despite a lingering lawsuit filed by Fox earlier this year.

“We don’t expect there to be any problems, notwithstanding the $100 million lawsuit that is going on between the companies,” he said. “Truly — and I’m not trying to be facetious — our relationship with them is great.”

Fox announced plans to sue Viacom in February. The News Corp. subsidiary contends that UPN’s parent company failed to properly compensate its key affils back when the stations were still owned by Chris-Craft. (Fox acquired the outlets in 2001.)

Viacom balked, arguing the suit was more of a negotiating tactic than a real grievance.

Meanwhile, Fox was also said to be concerned over UPN’s disappointing ratings last season. With all of those questions — plus the retirement of 20th Century Fox TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from the netlet — a new affiliation agreement was hardly considered a slam-dunk.

With the New York and Los Angeles affiliations expiring, insiders and rivals have predicted just about anything for UPN, including a change of ownership, a shuffling of affiliates, another network makeover or even a wholesale shutdown.

But Moonves dismissed all of those scenarios, saying the News Corp. negotiation was going “extremely well.”

“I speak to (Fox TV Stations topper) Mitch Stern regularly,” he said. “They’re very supportive of our programs. They want to be there. We expect to have a new deal with the Fox stations, so it’s going to go on for a long time. … It’s basically a continuation of a normal affiliation.”

Still, it’s unlikely that Fox will exercise its option — which expires at the end of next month — to simply extend the terms of its affiliation deal with UPN through 2005-06.

“A deal’s not about to be done, but these are all positive conversations,” Moonves said. “Mitch Stern’s a good guy and he’s interested in the success of UPN. I have very little concern that it won’t be done.”

A Fox TV Stations rep declined comment.

High on fall sked

Meanwhile, Moonves and UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff sounded upbeat about the prospects for UPN’s fall lineup. Success of summer reality skein “America’s Next Top Model,” along with a solid development season, had the duo sounding as if the netlet had turned a corner.

” ‘Model’ gave us a footprint in the sand and let people say, ‘Yes, UPN is there. Yes, UPN can make a difference,’ ” Moonves said. “We think with the shows we have coming up, we’re going to make a real difference this fall. … I think there’s a flow to the schedule and I think, clearly, we’re going to be much stronger this year.”

Ostroff said UPN’s brand is evolving into that of a network designed for adults 18-34 “who are bold, adventurous and probably like a little risk-taking,” and that as a result, the net’s programming will “push the envelope a little.”

Not surprisingly, Moonves also tried to lower expectations about an immediate Nielsen rebound for UPN.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “Anybody who thinks they can overturn a network in one year only has to look at ABC.”

In other matters:

  • UPN will get a headstart on the competish by rolling out its new season before the official Sept. 22 start of the season.

    A revamped “Enterprise” begins its third season Sept. 10, the same night companion Wednesday drama “Jake 2.0” premieres. On Sept. 11, net will shrink “Smackdown” to 90 minutes and offer a sneak preview of redneck laffer “The Mullets” at 9:30 p.m.

    Execs aren’t concerned about airing the bow of “The Mullets” on Sept. 11, which marks the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

    “There clearly will be a lot of news coverage on the night,” Moonves said. “We don’t think the average viewer turns to UPN for news. … We looked at the pros and cons, and we decided that would be a good opportunity for us.”

    The rest of UPN’s lineup will premiere the week of Sept. 15, except the “UPN Movie Friday Night,” which launches Sept. 26.

  • “All of Us” exec producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith said they would make guest appearances on the new Tuesday night laffer.

    Smith said he will appear over three episodes as the boyfriend of character Neesee Jones, played by LisaRaye.

    Pinkett Smith, meanwhile, will appear as the sister of the main character Robert James Sr., played by Duane Martin.

    Smith also said he expects his children to make appearances on the show.

    Smith said he was delighted to return to the sitcom genre, even if it’s mostly behind the scenes. At the same time, he quipped that he couldn’t afford to give up his film career.

    “They pay me too much money to make movies,” Smith said.

  • UPN hasn’t ruled out expanding to a sixth night, Ostroff said. While there are no plans to add a night any time soon, she said such a move has been discussed and that much will depend on how the netlet performs this season.

  • Next edition of “America’s Next Top Model” could premiere as early as November, should the net find itself in need of a midseason replacement.

  • Despite similar male-oriented viewer targets, Moonves said UPN doesn’t plan to collaborate with sib Viacom cabler Spike TV anytime soon.

    “It’s not necessary,” he said. “We need to establish who we are, and they need to establish who they are. Spike is just relaunching, and they don’t want repurposed UPN shows, nor do I want repurposed Spike TV shows.”

  • Crix continue to be perplexed by UPN’s decision to name rapper Eve’s new laffer “Eve,” even though she plays a character named Shelley. Ostroff pointed out that “The Cosby Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” were named after their stars, rather than characters.

    What’s more, ” ‘Joe Millionaire’ was neither Joe nor a millionaire,” she quipped.

(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)

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