UPN wrestling with schedule plans

Net's pact with WWE expires at the end of season

As it tilts more femme-centric, weblet UPN isn’t turning its back on wrestling.

The CBS-owned network is in talks with World Wrestling Entertainment to renew its commitment to “Friday Night Smackdown.” UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff said she was confident a fresh deal would be reached shortly.

“We fully intend to have wrestling on our schedule,” Ostroff told reporters Thursday at UPN’s portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour.

The net’s pact with WWE expires at the end of this season. Once the centerpiece of UPN’s strategy in its jock strap days, wrestling seemed slightly out of place on the web as it began to focus on female viewers a few years ago. The net even moved “Smackdown” from its longtime Thursday berth this year, in order to create a better schedule flow.

But “Smackdown” has helped the network revive its Friday night perf, improving its adults 18-34 numbers by 100%. Net also saw an uptick last fall after WWE’s “Raw” franchise returned to its original home, USA Network, following several years on Spike TV.

“UPN has gone from worst to first in adults 18-34 on Friday,” Ostroff said.

WWE said it was “premature” to comment on the ongoing negotiation, but a rep said, “WWE has a long-standing relationship with UPN, which we are interested in continuing.”

Meanwhile, the net confirmed that it is developing a “Girlfriends” spinoff revolving around women in various stages of relationships with pro football players.

UPN is still mum on whether “Girlfriends” will retire after this season, the show’s sixth. But the new skein could serve as a replacement for “Girlfriends” in much the same way “Frasier” carried on the “Cheers” legacy. (“Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer exec produces “Girlfriends.”)

Grammer and “Girlfriends” exec producer Mara Brock-Akil would also be behind the spinoff, which will actually be produced as a backdoor pilot by introducing the characters in an episode of “Girlfriends” later this season.

Also, Ostroff said the net is developing a reality-comedy hybrid with ex-boy band members Lance Bass and Joey Fatone (‘NSync) to star in a modern twist on “The Odd Couple.”

FremantleMedia (“American Idol”) is behind the project, currently titled “Out of Sync,” along with writer/exec producer Scott Tomlinson (“The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour”). UPN has ordered a script and also asked producers to shoot a few scenes.

“Joey and Lance … are truly an odd couple,” Ostroff said. “Even when you sit in a room with them, they are like Oscar and Felix in so many ways, and that’s something new and fresh for this generation. I think there’s inherently a built-in viewer response and interest in them and what the show could be.”

Ostroff opened her UPN session by touting the net’s success this season in growing its adult and women 18-34 ratings, thanks especially to powerhouse “America’s Next Top Model.” The net announced it has ordered a seventh and eighth edition of the show, both of which will air next season.

Cycle six of “Top Model” debuts March 8 with a two-hour premiere.

Ostroff also expressed her support for the critically acclaimed “Everybody Hates Chris” and said the show is expected to return next season. Executive producer Chris Rock is directing an episode of “Chris,” while across town, “All of Us” exec producer Will Smith is also getting behind the lens for a seg.

Addressing the hot topic of technology and new distribution platforms, Ostroff pointed to UPN’s move last fall to offer the “Chris” pilot on Google.

“Our target viewers are avid Internet users, heavy consumers of media and early adopters of new gadgets,” she said. “And with our ratings growth and creative achievement, we’ll continue to get our quality content out there on these new platforms.”

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