UPN execs have frog in their throats

In an emotional farewell address to UPN affiliates, the netlet’s president and CEO Lucie Salhany lobbed some parting shots at the rival WB, and promised to stay “on the sidelines rooting” after she leaves this fall.

“I’m going to be around,” Salhany said Tuesday at the opening of the netlet’s two-day affil gathering. “Next year, I’ll be sitting in the audience with those guys watching some other fool wring his hands and drive everybody crazy.”

Salhany plans to exit the network this fall, or when a replacement is named. But she’ll remain on the network’s operating committee, and she has no plans to go quietly.

In her trademark fighting style, Salhany told affiliates that the WB “is a mere tadpole when it comes to their competitiveness with us,” and she outlined what she called the top three lies told by the WB Network.

The first lie, she said, was that the WB is a “pure broadcast” network. Low broadcast coverage “forces them to use WGN and the proposed WeB as a crutch,” she said.

The second lie, she said, was that the WB beats UPN in the ratings.

“They have never beaten us and they never will,” she said. “I don’t know what happened to ‘Savannah,’ and this season’s hot new show ‘Buffy (the Vampire Slayer)’ has dropped significantly since its premiere.”

Salhany’s strongest words, though, were reserved for WB’s attempt to brand itself as “the family network.” “They’re not the family network,” she said. “I can say I’m six feet tall, blonde, with black eyes too.”

Salhany called the WB’s new 8 p.m. drama “Dawson’s Creek” an “embarrassing” show with “adolescent characters in very adult situations,” which she wouldn’t allow her 13-year-old son to watch without supervision.

In response to the speech, the WB issued a statement calling Salhany’s remarks “desperate.” “Her statements are not factual, and beyond that, we choose not to engage in a mudslinging contest that could discredit us or our industry,” the statement said.

Aside from the WB barbs, Salhany encouraged the netlet to maintain its focus on its young audiences.

“In order to flourish, UPN must go after the underserved audience: the younger, hipper viewer,” she said. “It’s a fact of life that those of us in this room are getting older. Our tastes have changed. But our tastes are not that of our audience.”

Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone, who also addressed the group, praised Salhany and took a few shots at the WB himself. “I found it amusing to read in the trades recently that executives from the WB are trying to downplay the huge edge we have on them in distribution by saying they’ve got the edge creatively,” Redstone said. “They should give up the fantasy.”

Kevin Tannehill, UPN’s executive vice president of network distribution, kept up the WB-bashing by poking fun at that weblet’s “dubba, dubba WB” slogan. Tannehill said he has a revised slogan to encourage affils to switch from the WB to UPN: “dumpa dubba, dumpa WB.”

Tannehill announced a new primary affiliate in Portland, Maine, WWLA. Previously, UPN was a secondary affiliate on WPXT in that market. Two Sullivan Broadcasting stations also renewed their UPN affiliation into the next millennium: WUXP Nashville and WUPN Greensboro, N.C.

Two-thirds of affils now have long-term renewals. UPN is still waiting to hear from the Sinclair Broadcast Group and some others on that issue.

Affiliates were generally upbeat after the presentation. “We’re happier this year overall because there’s a better mix of programs,” said one exec from KAIL Fresno, who added that affils are confident UPN will find a decent replacement for Salhany. “People in that corporation are pretty intelligent. The numbers are proof of the pudding.”

UPN also announced that a new cast member has been added to “Star Trek Voyager.” Actress Jeri Ryan will portray a female Borg named “seven of nine.” Ryan is a former series regular of NBC’s “Dark Skies,” which isn’t returning next season.

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