Merger puts UPN and Frog in a blender

AFTER PETTY FEUDING, skewered-frog pins, jostling over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and snarky volleys back and forth, the WB and UPN networks have finally done what they probably should have done in the first place.

Together, at last.

Both enterprises were born conceptually in 1993, after the government eliminated the financial interest and syndication rules. The absence of those protections for independent suppliers triggered fears that the studios behind the two weblets, Warner Bros. and Paramount, would be out of luck peddling programs to the major networks. The fledgling broadcasters’ birth was thus largely defensive, meant to ensure the two studios would have shelf space for their wares.

Now, however, following years of media consolidation into what agent Robert Broder has rightly called “the five families,” it no longer made sense, financially or otherwise, to have six networks.

Warner Bros., after all, hasn’t exactly suffered when it comes to producing for primetime. It’s by far the leading supplier — a sometimes dubious distinction, given that business’s economics — even before throwing in other Time Warner-owned units.

As for Paramount, its TV operation is under the custody of CBS (pay attention, there will be a test on this later) in its divorce from Viacom, and the unit recently gutted one of its production arms, Spelling Television.

From the beginning, the WB and UPN were chasing a youth audience that by virtue of sheer numbers was the toughest to amass in a substantial way. Teens are the smallest demographic segment, and the children the WB initially courted with that dancing frog were not only a hard sell to advertisers, but they drifted to Nickelodeon and other dedicated alternatives.

So there they were, vying for recognition as the “sixth network” in a broadcast environment that, with budding cable competition, could reasonably support about 3½ English-language networks. It was only a matter of time before something had to give.

In its human toll, of course, Tuesday’s announcement is terrible. Yet as both networks witnessed with “Buffy,” although it’s dirty business, when necessary you have to drive a stake through something’s heart. In this case, that was the combination of fear and hubris that inspired the parallel launches of UPN and the WB.

A NEWS-FREE ZONE: The TV Critics Assn.’s semiannual tour is over, and network and studio execs can rejoice. That’s because despite marathon press conferences, none of them really said much of great note.

This modern age of cautiousness differs from the days when network chiefs like NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff and later Don Ohlmeyer stirred the pot with their public comments, tackling issues and making news. Today, most folks occupying the large corner office high-five the PR department if they don’t make news.

NBC’s current entertainment prexy, Kevin Reilly, was the rare exception. He provided thoughtful answers and even flatly admitted to having made a scheduling mistake regarding “Last Comic Standing,” which comes as a breath of fresh air at one of these events and simultaneously disqualifies him from serving in the Bush administration.

Beyond that, the main highlight was ABC’s Steve McPherson joking that his pal Reilly is “easy on the eyes” and that “Jake in Progress” endures because, McPherson said, “I have a crush on John Stamos.” Hey, who doesn’t?

The directional turn onto Bland Street isn’t a mystery. Network and studio officials are tamped down under huge corporate structures. Because there’s a significant difference between owning the store and minding the candy counter, it’s better in theory, anyway, to play not to lose.

That said, look at other spheres. Politicians, athletes and sports commentators slip up and say asinine things all the time, and most of them escape with an apology after the fact.

Admittedly, execs aren’t solely to blame for this news-free malaise. Plenty of the questions they field are inane, and thanks to the blogosphere’s influence, more coverage skewers the rich and powerful for the sheer fun of it, a la Defamer.

What most reporters are seeking, though, is merely a wider window into a mysterious world, conveying the rationale behind decisions that can appear puzzling, shortsighted or flat-out stupid.

So come on, people. Lighten up a little. If you need me to get the ball rolling by calling someone at another newspaper a moron, just ask about the Los Angeles Times’ sports columnists, and I’ll deliver a transcript that’ll even make that handsome Kevin Reilly blush.

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