Topper upbeat despite ratings dip

Even as UPN suffers through a ratings slump this season, netlet toppers promise better days ahead.

Speaking to reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour Sunday, CBS chief Leslie Moonves contended that UPN “is in a better position this year than it was a year ago.”

Season-to-date, UPN has been hit with double-digit declines across the board, including a 15% year-to-year drop in the net’s target adults 18-34 demo.

But Moonves and UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff say they’re still playing “catchup.” Going forward, the execs touted UPN’s fall 2003 development, which includes projects from A-list names such as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith (who are developing a sitcom based on their home life), Joel Silver and Mel Gibson.

“We’re looking for UPN to have a homegrown hit,” Moonves said.

The execs also stressed improvements in UPN’s distribution — including its first-ever St. Louis affil, which bows in April — and the economic benefits that have come from absorbing UPN inside CBS.

“We think we’re more efficient financially and creatively,” Moonves said. “Our losses have been decreased substantially. We’re on our way to being profitable.”

According to Moonves, UPN sliced its losses by 50% in 2002. Insiders believe UPN’s deficits landed at $40 million-$50 million in 2002, a decline from the previous year’s $80 million.

But some of that drop came from the one-time benefit of UPN merging operations with CBS. The netlet’s ad rates also saw a healthy 25% boost in 2002 over 2001, partly thanks to UPN’s solid ratings perf last year.

Meanwhile, the net is also in the midst of determining the long-term fate of two of its primetime staples –”WWE Smackdown” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Moonves said UPN is in “active discussions” with World Wrestling Entertainment to keep “Smackdown” on the net.

UPN receives a fee and some ad time, but WWE sells the bulk of the weekly two-hour grapplefest’s ad time itself. Talks have revolved around whether to keep the same model in place or alter the relationship.

“Thursday night, our wrestling night, is still our most profitable night,” Moonves said.

As for “Buffy,” Moonves and Ostroff said they have approached 20th Century Fox TV and series creator Joss Whedon to determine whether star Sarah Michelle Gellar will return or if he might retool the show into a spinoff if she doesn’t.

“I wouldn’t bet that it comes back in the form that it is now,” Moonves said. “But it’s still possible. (Dawn) has met with Joss a number of times about different permutations of the show.”

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