UPN shifts target to young demo

Shift marks major reversal for Valentine

Acknowledging that its fall schedule has performed poorly, UPN is abandoning its strategy of targeting a broad, Middle-American audience and will focus instead on attracting younger viewers and men, according to industry sources.

UPN would not comment, but netlet executives have been sending out word to the creative community that they want to target male viewers between the ages of 18-34 with boundary-pushing programming.

They are citing the popularity of films such as “The Waterboy” and ‘There’s Something About Mary,” as well as action-adventure TV shows like the syndicated “Xena: Warrior Princess.” They also say the young male audience is underserved by TV.

“They are not going for the mainstream, broad-based programming,” said one producer working with UPN. “They’ve done a complete 180, and they want more cutting-edge stuff.”

Change in attitude

The shift marks a major reversal for UPN CEO Dean Valentine, who previously had derided the networks’ narrow focus on demographics and had repeatedly stated that good programming alone can attract an audience.

When Valentine was officially anointed the successor to departing UPN CEO Lucie Salhany last September, he told Daily Variety, “Demos are, in fact, real Americans with real families living in real communities … I wonder if the fact that the network TV audience has eroded to 50% isn’t in some measure a result of thinking in those kinds of categories.”

But UPN’s attempt to broaden its audience this fall has failed so far. Its core audience of black viewers has largely abandoned the netlet, and few new viewers have taken their place. The result: UPN has lost 39% of its household ratings and 42% of its viewers between the ages of 18 to 49 compared to the same eight weeks last year.

Gotta have a gimmick

UPN execs now admit that generic programming, even strong generic programming, isn’t good enough because there isn’t a compelling reason for viewers to tune in. The netlet needs to offer viewers something they can’t find anywhere else, and young viewers are typically more open to trying something new.

Ironically, UPN’s new goal of attracting young men is actually the initial strategy Salhany used when launching UPN, with “Star Trek: Voyager” as its linchpin.

Today, UPN’s young male Wednesday lineup of “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Seven Days” is the netlet’s best night: The Wednesday ratings are still down 25% from last year, but Monday and Tuesday have fallen 50% and 38%, respectively.

Even so, UPN’s thinking reflects the current identity crisis in the web TV business, as broadcasters realize they may have to become narrowcasters in order to brand themselves and survive in a multichannel environment.

Narrow focus

UPN’s rival netlet, the WB has perhaps clung to the most narrowly defined target of young women in recent seasons. Within the last month, two networks, NBC and Fox, have hired new entertainment presidents with backgrounds in the cable industry, which is known for its branding and narrow audiences.